Transitioning away from HFCs: An energy and climate change opportunity

Blackouts and power outages, like the recent September blackouts in Mumbai, are an unfortunate part of daily life in India. A couple of years ago, grid outages roiled large swaths of India, leaving more than 600 million people without electricity and services.  It is no surprise that the Modi government has made energy a priority. Recently, Power Minister Piyush Goyal announced goals of 24/7 access to power for all homes, industrial, and commercial establishments within five years. Meeting those goals means taking advantage of every energy-saving opportunity, and last week’s joint statement following the summit between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi highlighted some great opportunities on energy. But one in particular offers some low-hanging energy efficiency opportunities that could offer a win-win for energy supplies and Indian businesses.

A key component of the joint statement addressed hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful heat-trapping gases used as refrigerants that can have thousands of times more powerful climate change effect than carbon dioxide. Until recently, progress on the issue looked difficult. The new agreement reflects encouraging progress. Importantly, from the perspective of meeting India’s energy needs, reducing the use of HFCs offers low hanging opportunities to not only address climate change, but also to help India meet its energy challenges by facilitating the shift to more energy-efficient air conditioners, while having the costs of the transition covered by the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol.

Follow up to the meeting of the leaders is slated to come very soon. The US-India joint statement calls for representatives from both nations to meet in the near future—before the next meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol, which starts on November 17—to work out next steps in the effort to tackle the climate change impacts of HFCs. Here’s the full language from the joint Modi-Obama statement:

The leaders recalled previous bilateral and multilateral statements on the phase-down of HFCs.  They recognized the need to use the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to reduce consumption and production of HFCs, while continuing to report and account for the quantities reduced under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  They pledged to urgently arrange a meeting of their bilateral task force on HFCs prior to the next meeting of the Montreal Protocol to discuss issues such as safety, cost and commercial access to new or alternative technologies to replace HFCs.  The two sides would thereafter cooperate on next steps to tackle the challenge posed by HFCs to global warming.

Addressing HFC use could offer India significant energy and economic benefits. For the Modi government, meeting India’s energy needs and increasing energy efficiency is a central component of the agenda. Simply building new generation capacity is unlikely to be enough to keep up with India’s projected demand. India must also make the most of the energy it is already generating and will generate in the future. Energy efficiency will be key. Moving to air conditioner models that use alternatives to high global-warming-potential (GWP) HFCs is part of the solution because it can facilitate design changes that yield energy efficiency improvements, with the potential added bonus of having transition costs financed under the Montreal Protocol.

As a recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) noted, air conditioners energy use is one of the largest components of residential power consumption and one of the major drivers of peak energy demand in India. Others like NRDC partner, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), have noted the same. Air conditioner use and power use is also projected to grow quickly and dramatically as the economy and affluence grow. The LBNL report concluded that air conditioner energy efficiency can be improved significantly:

[It] can be improved by over 40% cost effectively. The total potential energy savings from Room AC efficiency improvement in India using the best available technology will reach over 118 TWh in 2030; potential peak demand saving is found to be 60 GW by 2030. This is equivalent to avoiding 120 new coal fired power plants of 500 MW each.

Energy efficiency improvements accompanying a switch away from high-GWP HFCs can mean savings for equipment owners, but perhaps even more importantly can reduce the demand for more energy and more capital-intensive power plants. The improvements would also lead to cleaner air with benefits for health and health care savings.

At the same time, an Amendment to the Montreal Protocol to cover HFCs (which it currently does not cover) can include provisions for financing transition costs so that transition costs are paid for and little or no costs accrue to India or Indian companies. (For more about Amendments to the protocol, see here.) In addition, it is worth noting that current proposals for an Amendment do not require a switch away from current uses in sectors or subsectors where viable alternatives do not exist at the time of transition. GWP reduction targets could be achieved by switching in categories where viable alternatives already exist.

India has previously successfully phased out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals under the Montreal Protocol ahead of schedule. Indian companies have an opportunity to start adopting these alternatives to high-GWP refrigerants now with financing from the Montreal Protocol Multilateral Fund, avoid higher costs of transitioning later and gain greater access to domestic and foreign markets that are moving away from HFCs. Indian companies are among the leaders in next-generation room air conditioning that uses safer refrigerants and achieves higher energy efficiency. By adopting alternatives, India can take advantage of an emerging market, prevent a major share of future climate-changing emissions before they even occur, and help India meet its energy needs.

The win-win nature of the move away from high-GWP HFCs makes the joint announcement an exciting opportunity for progress on both greenhouse gas reduction and energy efficiency gains that can help address India's energy needs. We are looking forward to the next steps by the two governments to move forward on the issue, including the meeting of the bilateral task force that is singled out for rapid engagement in the US-India joint statement.