Energy Efficient, Climate Friendly Refrigerants for Hot and Humid India: Moving into the Future

Picture of Bhaskar Deol

Guest blog by Bhaskar Deol, NRDC India Representative based in New Delhi

This is the first in a series of blogs on this issue. (See the second and third posts in the series.)

At the recently concluded bilateral India-US summit, Prime Minister Modi of India and US President Obama agreed to take a significant step to tackle the dangers of climate change. The two leaders agreed to address phasing down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – global warming gases with environmental impact thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide – through the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to reduce consumption and production, with reporting and accounting of reductions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This is a promising move as it closely aligns with India’s phase out of R-22, the commonly used, ozone depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerant currently in use by the room air conditioner (AC) industry. To phase out R-22, the Indian AC industry must choose and start to move to the next generation of refrigerant – HCFC reduction requirements begin to kick in in 2015. The current HCFC schedule for countries such as India requires a freeze in consumption at January 2013 levels, with phased reductions following. India has to reduce national consumption by 10 percent by 2015, 35 percent by 2020, 67.5 percent by 2025, and 97.5 percent by 2030, with consumption after 2030 restricted to the servicing of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment. By 2040, HCFC production and consumption for refrigerant uses must cease.

Ending the use of HCFCs will undoubtedly be a positive step in protecting the ozone layer. But replacing R-22 with HFC-410a (R-410a) – the high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerant that developed countries chose a decade ago when making their transition – would solve one problem by creating another. With last week’s announcement, the prime minister has signaled to industry that India will play a proactive part in addressing the problem of rapidly growing global warming emission cause by HFCs.

A phase down of HFCs aligned with the phase out of HCFCs could be a potential win-win-win for the consumer, industry, and the environment if done right. This is because R-410a not only has high GWP but also offers relatively poor energy efficiency. Indian industry would be better off skipping R-410a completely and choosing one of two energy efficient, low-GWP alternatives already in use, as the HCFC phasedown moves into high gear in 2015. These alternatives are the refrigerants R-290 (HC-290, or propane) and R-32 (HFC-32).

Two Viable Alternatives

Use of either of these two refrigerants in ACs is not new. Consider first, the hydrocarbon refrigerant R-290. European cooling appliances have used R-290 safely for a number of years. Many companies in China have also chosen R-290 as their preferred refrigerant. R-290 systems may be cheaper compared to HFC-410a systems, and their energy efficiency results in lower operating costs. In India, Godrej & Boyce reports sales of 100,000 units since 2013, when the company launched its highly energy efficient range of hydrocarbon ACs in India. The other viable alternative – R-32 (or HFC-32) – has seen similar commercial success. Daikin has sold more than 150,000 ACs using this refrigerant in India, and over three million such ACs in Japan. Together, sales of R-290- and R-32-based systems in little over one year are approaching 10 percent of India’s annual AC sales of 3 million units. (We will be posting more detailed profiles of AC systems using R-290 and R-32 soon.)

No Technology Barriers

The technology for using R-32 or R-290 refrigerants is not proprietary and limited to Daikin and Godrej. Both options are available to other Indian manufacturers interested in making a transition today. Daikin has been offering free access to its “Basic Patent Indispensable for the Manufacture and Sale of Air Conditioners Using R-32 Single Component Refrigerant” since 2011. The company developed a strategy to partner with key countries and institutions to introduce the technology to developing country markets. Within weeks of that announcement, Fujitsu General, Hitachi, and Toshiba joined the partnership and developed a strategy to continue its expansion. Fujitsu General is already taking advantage of this free access to technology and selling R-32 based air conditioners in the Indian market. As a naturally occurring chemical, R-290 isn’t patented at all. Indian companies have the potential to adopt it at a low cost and further develop this technology. Doing so could reduce the market price of R-290 air conditioners and at the same time help strengthen the servicing network for hydrocarbon ACs.

Energy Efficiency and Performance at High Ambient Temperature

One factor making R-290 a good fit for Indian air conditioners is the country’s climate. India is hot, with ambient temperatures in most of the country frequently exceeding 40°C (104°F) during the months between April and September. As the middle class grows, people are increasingly turning to air conditioning systems to stay cool during summers. A recent study has shown R-290 to be more than suitable for use in regions with high ambient temperatures. When compared to R-410a, R-290 is far more efficient. Although R-290 based systems are currently limited to 1.5 tonne in size, systems of 1 and 1.5 tonne capacity form the majority of AC sales in India. Switching to R-290 can help a majority of Indian consumers save money in the long run, while being significantly more energy efficient and environment friendly. While R-290 can be highly flammable, it is approved by respected national and international safety authorities for refrigeration and air conditioning applications with relatively small charges and explosion-proof electrical connections and components such as switches, and can be used with appropriate design and safety standards. A report by NRDC and its partners – the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW); The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI); and the Institute for Governance and Sustainabile Development (IGSD) – titled “Cooling India with Less Warming” has more details. In a working paper, experts at CEEW anticipate that costs will be reasonable and not too high.

Like R-290-based room ACs, R-32-based room ACs demonstrate improved energy efficiency that is superior to R-410a. Importantly, at high ambient conditions typical in India, R-32 retains its efficiency much better than R-410a. In 2013, the Daikin R-32 room AC earned the prestigious “Top Runner” designation in Japan as the most energy efficient room AC of the year.

The Refrigerant Transition for India

Indian companies have an opportunity to bypass HFC-410a and instead adopt climate-friendly, next-generation refrigerants that provide better performance in our hot and humid weather. Superior energy efficiency for both, R-290 and R-32 refrigerants could result in several positive outcomes: less greenhouse emissions, lower electricity use, accompanied by energy bill savings for the end-consumer, and perhaps most importantly, a reduced burden on India’s electricity grid. If the Montreal Protocol is amended to cover HFCs (not currently covered), the transition would likely be funded, at least in part, by the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol as it was for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), in order to facilitate the switch for Indian companies.

International markets are already making a switch. United States, Japan, and Europe have all restricted the use of HCFC refrigerants for years. These countries are now moving to ban HFCs. In December 2013, the European Union officially passed legislation to reduce HFC use to one-fifth of today’s levels by 2030. Indian manufacturers can answer the call of India’s prime minister, and help lead a global transition in the room AC industry by developing room air conditioning systems with the next generation of climate friendly, energy efficient refrigerants.

Note: This post reflects a correction to the number of hydrocarbon AC units sold by Godrej & Boyce since 2013. That number is 100,000, not 180,000. The latter is the total number of all AC units sold by Godrej in 2014.