Engineered Systems Magazine

Guest Column: The Road to Energy Efficiency

November 1, 2010

That - and so much more - goes through COP16.

Next month, the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Cancun, Mexico, to continue negotiations on efforts to address climate change. Although COP15, held last year in Copenhagen, did not produce a legally binding replacement of the Kyoto Protocol, it did heighten awareness that energy efficiency is the most viable way to reduce carbon emissions, while saving money and reducing dependence on volatile foreign energy sources.

Expectations for COP15 to reach a binding agreement were simply too high, in large part because the critical issues surrounding climate change - balance of trade, economic security and growth, energy independence, offshore drilling, and cap-and-trade - are complex and intertwined.

However, the experience last year in Copenhagen has tempered expectations for this year’s conference. Observers should look for progress as delegates representing nearly 200 countries work toward an agreement. But they should not expect COP16 to produce a final resolution. Instead, COP16 will continue the discussion on climate change, looking at steps countries can take to improve energy efficiency, develop renewable energy sources, and reduce our collective dependence on fossil fuels, while exploring and promoting new measures that delegates and their respective countries can stand behind.

The recent coal mine accident in China and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico serve as visible reminders of the risks associated with our dependence on fossil fuels and have strengthened the resolve of those engaged in the search for alternative fuels. Such disasters also call into question plans to expand deep-water offshore drilling unless stricter regulations and controls are implemented to protect oceans and coastal regions and ensure the safety of workers. These issues will increase the pressure on the delegates to COP16.

HVACR INDUSTRY IMPLICATIONS

HVACR industry groups also look to COP16 for consideration of other issues, including high global-warming-potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants. Canada, Mexico, and the United States have already formally proposed an orderly phasedown of HFCs through the Montreal Protocol, which is separate from COP16.

Many industry manufacturers also prefer including HFCs in the Montreal Protocol, separating control of these important substances from waste-byproduct gases controlled by the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, most countries with experienced environmental staffs well-versed in the complex issues related to air conditioning and refrigeration systems and the related energy efficiency tradeoffs favor including HFCs in the Montreal Protocol. It’s possible that the COP16 could be asked to endorse this approach.

Hailed by many as the most effective piece of international environmental law, the Montreal Protocol is credited with successfully phasing out ozone-depleting substances, such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants, and simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by as much as 135 gigatons of CO2, according to the 2010 UN Millennium Development Goals Report.

A planned, orderly phasedown of HFCs through the Montreal Protocol would provide manufacturers with the time needed to develop equipment utilizing low-GWP refrigerants, whether new synthetic substances or natural refrigerants. Although several alternative refrigerants already exist, no single refrigerant type is suitable for all applications. In commercial refrigeration, several alternatives including (CO2, isobutene, and propane, are gradually being introduced, but the air conditioning industry continues to search for alternatives to today’s HFCs. Therefore, any agreement reached must provide adequate time to research, develop, and test alternatives to HFCs, and to adapt equipment to operate with alternate refrigerants.

Many developed nations, including the European Union countries, have supported the Montreal Protocol as the appropriate vehicle to phase down HFCs. But this approach raises financial concerns among leaders of developing countries such as China and India, who feel such policy would place their countries at an economic disadvantage.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

In our quest to phase down HFCs, it is important that we not compromise efforts to improve energy efficiency. Energy efficiency contributes to reduced dependence on risky foreign energy sources while also reducing atmospheric emissions and helping to avoid costly power plant construction. Air conditioning efficiency levels are double those of a few decades ago. SEER 16 efficiency levels have become common, and a number of new and emerging technologies will produce even greater efficiencies. Improving energy efficiency offers benefits few can afford to ignore - job growth, reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions, lower operating costs, reduced dependence on foreign energy supplies, improved balance of trade, and economic growth.

COP16 provides the forum for important discussions on climate change, global warming, energy efficiency, and related topics, including the phasedown of HFCs, to continue. And, in the process, we as an industry can hope that these global discussions will encourage individual nations to take the appropriate measures that move the process forward, in word and in deed, and bring us all closer to an agreement that one day everyone can support. ES