A technological & economic snapshot of Australia's RAC industry

By Alexandra Maratou, Jul 31, 2013, 10:52 6 minute reading

Despite a low starting point, the use of hydrocarbons has seen strong growth in the past three years, according to a new report by the Australian government that presents a technological and economic snapshot of the refrigeration and air conditioning (RAC) industry in the country. RAC equipment is one of the largest single sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia.

Published by the Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Cold Hard Facts 2 provides an economic and technological assessment of the refrigeration and air conditioning industry in Australia, an industry that goes largely unseen by the public, even though it encompasses technology that is present in, and facilitates every other industry, and essential to daily life in Australia. Refrigeration and air conditioning is a ‘cross cutting’ technology that is effectively ‘invisible’ while in full view.

RAC equipment - one of the largest single sources of GHG emissions in Australia

As a result of the huge quantity of electricity used, and the significant bank of refrigerant gases with high Global Warming Potential (GWP), RAC equipment is also one of the largest single sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Australia.

Total indirect GHG emissions as a result of energy consumption to power RAC systems are estimated to be 57.1 Mt CO2-e per annum, equivalent to more than 10% of Australian GHG emissions.

Combined with an estimated 4.1 Mt CO2-e of Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (SGG) direct emissions from losses of refrigerant gas from operating RAC systems, RAC technology is responsible for GHG emissions equivalent to approximately 11.1% of Australian emissions in 2011. This total does not include about 1.3 Mt CO2-e of direct emissions of earlier generations of refrigerant gas that are also strong ozone depleting substances.

It neither includes the quantity of refrigerant gas leaks from RAC equipment that reaches the end of its useful life every year. The report estimates that in 2012 this could have been equivalent to as much as an additional 1.9 Mt CO2. This might not be surprising, given that every year an estimated 2 million devices containing refrigerant gas reach their end of life, including more than 800,000 domestic refrigerators and freezers, 500,000 air conditioners, 600,000 vehicles of all types, and 90,000 commercial refrigeration units.

Use of low GWP refrigerants sees strong growth despite low starting point

A vast stock of equipment, ranging from small portable refrigerators and ACs to enormous commercial chillers and refrigeration plants, employ a bank of more than 43,000 tonnes of synthetic refrigerant gases, which have high GWP. However, more than 4,800 tonnes of low GWP refrigerants are also to be found working in major refrigeration plants, most cold storage distribution facilities, in more than a million registered road vehicles, and an increasing number of supermarket refrigeration systems and domestic refrigerators. The total mass of low GWP refrigerants employed provides refrigeration and air conditioning services that would otherwise require approximately 5,000 tonnes of high GWP gases, equivalent to 11.5% of the high GWP bank.

Strong growth – despite starting from low levels - in some classes of low GWP refrigerants has been observed in the past three years in Australia, particularly in the use of hydrocarbons (HC-600a, HC-290 and HC-436). The majority of hydrocarbons are employed in small charge systems such as domestic refrigerators and automotive systems.

This trend has coincided with the introduction of the equivalent carbon price on the import and manufacture of synthetic greenhouse gases. Suppliers of low GWP refrigerants, and equipment that employs these refrigerants, have been operating in the market for many years prior to the introduction of the levy, some providing engineering services on large ammonia systems used in the cold food chain, others focused on development of the market for HC charged equipment. All of these businesses have seen strong growth in customer enquiries and sales since the HFC levy was announced.

1.2 million vehicles with HC MACs on Australia’s roads

Hydrocarbons are reported to be a widely used refrigerant in mobile air conditioning (MAC). It is thought to be employed most frequently in the service market for older vehicles and is estimated to account for around 8% of passenger and light commercial vehicles (read related hydrocarbons21.com article). This equates to around 1,200,000 on road passenger and light commercial vehicles. In addition there is one very small manufacturer of special purpose 4WD on/off road vehicles that has switched to hydrocarbon refrigerants.

HCs in more than 50% of domestic refrigerator sales

It is estimated that in 2012 more than 1.1 million domestic refrigerators in Australia (~7% of the total) contained hydrocarbon HC-600a. This number is expected to grow rapidly with retailers and manufacturers reporting that more than half of all new sales of domestic refrigerators now use hydrocarbon refrigerant. As an indication, a small survey of 76 fridge-freezers products in a large retail outlet was undertaken in 2013 and it was found that 54% of products contained hydrocarbon refrigerant. A previous survey of 66 products carried out at the end of 2010 in the same store had found 29% of offered products to use hydrocarbons.

Moreover, Australia’s remaining domestic refrigerator manufacturer has converted the majority of its product lines to HC-600a and has plans to convert the remaining models soon.

HC self-contained refrigeration display cabinets are emerging

The use of hydrocarbons (HC-600a and HC-290) and CO2 refrigerants is emerging in new equipment in Australia. However the installed base is very small, estimated at best to be just 2% in some equipment classes and non-existent in others. Examples of equipment using hydrocarbon refrigerants include wine coolers and chest freezers, or freezer cabinets that can be found for example in the majority of the 300 Aldi supermarkets currently operating in Australia.

Other HC charged applications include small volumes of stationary room ACs, and some small hot water heat pumps.

Vast increase in AC equipment underpins dramatic growth in 2006 – 2010 refrigerant bank

The report finds a dramatic phase of growth in the bank of working gas, which has expanded by more than 45% in just 6 years, from an estimated 30,169 tonnes in 2006 to a total bank of 43,500 tonnes in 2012. The rapid growth in the working bank, particularly between 2006 and 2010, is a phenomenon that was largely underpinned by the vast increase in air conditioning equipment.

The overall rate of growth of this high GWP bank of gas appears to have slowed in the last two years, with the growth estimated at only 5% per annum, at most. The observed flattening in growth of the bank between 2010 and 2012 could possibly be a result of:
  • Some saturation in the air conditioning market, coupled with
  • Slightly cooler summers in 2010 and 2011 than during previous years.
  • The general tightening in consumer spending, resulting in delayed purchasing decisions
  • Accelerated transition for some product categories to the use of low GWP gases in the lead up to the introduction on 1 July 2012 of the equivalent carbon price (levy) on HFCs: e.g. the retrofitting of registered passenger vehicles with hydrocarbons, a shift by manufacturers of new domestic refrigerators to HCs, and a move to technology driven by CO2 refrigerant in some larger supermarket systems.

However, the report assesses that it is too early to say if this slowing in the overall growth rate of the high GWP bank is a long-term trend.

About Cold Hard Facts 2

The Cold Hard Facts 2 report includes an analysis of the size and economic value of the industry, the equipment and refrigerant gas bank, trends in gas imports and equipment, and direct and indirect emissions in this sector. At its heart is a model that has been built largely from primary data including equipment and refrigerant gas imports, manufacturer and sales surveys, licensing data and numerous other sources of data from various supply lines such as compressor and condensing unit sales. The CHF2 model is built up from analysis of equipment stocks of more than 50 product types using parameters including refrigeration capacity, average gas charge, leak rates, hours of use based on location and climate zone, retirement rates, and energy use.

Prepared by Expert Group in association with Thinkwell Australia, the report expands on a similar study commissioned by the Department in 2007, Cold Hard Facts, which is also available on the website of Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 


By Alexandra Maratou

Jul 31, 2013, 10:52

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