R290 is gradually becoming the first choice of the next generation of refrigerants.
Driven by increasing incomes, electrification, urbanization, as well as a warming world, demand for air conditioners in emerging economies, particularly those with hot climates, is expected to greatly increase energy consumption. India accounts for about 28–30 percent of the Asian (excluding China and Japan) air conditioners market and 4–5 percent of the global market. In India, variable-speed ACs that account for about 10 percent of wall-mounted split AC products are the fastest-growing category. Given this increase, the air conditioning sector (residential and commercial) is expected to contribute over 63 percent HFC emissions by 2050.
Refrigerant Replacement Becomes an Urgent Mission
Improving the energy efficiency of residential air conditioners is a critical step toward reducing the energy, peak load, and total lifecycle emissions impacts of ACs while transitioning to low global-warming-potential (GWP) refrigerants under the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Low GWP refrigerants are an essential element of the strategy, enhancing the energy efficiency of air conditioners particularly in countries with long, hot cooling seasons and carbon-intense electricity. Shifting the 2030 world stock of residential air conditioners from the low efficiency technology using high-GWP refrigerants to higher efficiency technology and low-GWP refrigerants in parallel would save between 340–790 gigawatts (GW) of peak load globally, which is roughly equivalent to avoiding 680–1550 peak power plants of 500MW each. This would save over 0.32 GT/year annually in India, which is equivalent to roughly twice India’s 100GW solar mission target, according to a report by CEEW.
The current residential AC refrigerant is hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC)-22, which is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol as an ozone-depleting substance (ODS). Currently, there is no one refrigerant that is being bet on across the industry to replace HFCs. The replacement for HCFC-22 in developed countries was HFC-410A and the next generation already commercialized replacements are R290 and HFC-32. Potential replacement refrigerant R-452b is not yet commercialized. The predominant alternatives are R290 (propane), R32, and R410A. Given the large anticipated increase in market growth for this segment and the potential for emissions reduction, R290 could be an energy-efficient alternate for new ACs.
R290 Emerging as a Viable Alternative
In a time when refrigerants are being closely evaluated for their environmental impacts, propane (R290) is emerging as an increasingly viable alternative. With a global warming potential (GWP) of 3 and an ozone depletion potential (ODP) of 0, R290 poses virtually no threat to the environment. R290 is high-purity propane. It also has excellent thermodynamic measures of efficiency. It has a high cooling capacity, and performs well in high ambient conditions, characteristic of India’s climate. R290 air conditioners save over five times as much energy as a R410A air conditioner. In addition, there is 38 percent emissions reduction when using R290. For India, such energy savings are likely to be much higher given that air conditioners usage is already straining the peak demand energy load.
Various countries and companies have chosen the road of R290 based on both international environmental policy and market competition. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed R290 as an acceptable refrigerant substitute under its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP), and recently exempted it from the venting prohibition in Section 608 of the Clean Air Act. Hence, R290 is gradually becoming the first choice of the next generation of refrigerant. Compared with the other alternate energy-efficient HCFC and HFC, the price of R290 is relatively steady. The refrigerant has already entered the Indian residential air conditioners market. However, its uptake in the Indian market is low. In order to support the switch from high-GWP, inefficient or expensive alternatives to HFCs, the Government of India is expected to do well to suggest R290 as an adequate alternative.