Technology & Innovation

How Refrigerators Are Evolving to Fight Climate Change

Not many people realize that the refrigerator in their home, apartment, condominium, school, or office is actually hurting the environment. The same goes for those window air conditioning units you see in older homes and in apartment buildings. These appliances use greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment.  On May 3, 2021, the Environmental … Continued

Not many people realize that the refrigerator in their home, apartment, condominium, school, or office is actually hurting the environment. The same goes for those window air conditioning units you see in older homes and in apartment buildings. These appliances use greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment. 

On May 3, 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) voted to reduce the greenhouse gases used in refrigeration units in a better effort to fight climate change. The specific gases in question are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are more harmful at causing warming of the planet than carbon dioxide. HFCs replaced chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s and this is the first time the EPA has regulated them.

HFCs have been banned or regulated by at least 12 states. More states are expected to ban or regulate HFCs following the vote taken by the EPA earlier in May.

“This is incredibly significant,” said Kristen N. Taddonio, a senior climate and energy adviser for the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, an environmental nonprofit group.

“By taking fast action on these short-lived climate pollutants, of which HFCs are the most potent, we can buy ourselves some time and actually help avoid climate tipping points.”

Any regulation from the EPA on HFCs would not begin until 2022. When regulations do take place, the goal is to reduce the production and importation of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The remaining 15 percent of HFCs can still be used because they have critical uses and no alternatives have yet been created.

According to estimates from the EPA, the new regulations would eliminate 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by the year 2050. This equates to roughly three years of emissions from the country’s power plants.

Financially, the reduction in the use of HFCs would be directly related to $283.9 billion in benefits for health and the environment because of reduced damage from severe weather, reduced heat-related issues, and reduced wildfires caused by climate change.

“With this proposal, EPA is taking another significant step under President Biden’s ambitious agenda to address the climate crisis,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Monday. “By phasing down HFCs, which can be hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, EPA is taking a major action to help keep global temperature rise in check.”

Regan continued, “This phasedown of HFCs will help promote American leadership in innovation and manufacturing of new climate-safe products. Put simply, this action is good for our planet and our economy.”

New Refrigerators Being Built to Fight Climate Change

Since it will take decades to reduce the use of HFCs, and the alternatives are either flammable (propane) or toxic (ammonia), companies are beginning to explore brand new refrigerators to fight climate change. 

A company in North Carolina, Phononic, Inc., is building a thermoelectric refrigerator that uses less energy. This refrigerator takes up less room and also causes less harm to the environment. A traditional refrigerator collects heat from inside the unit and pushes it out of the unit. This process is done away with completely by Phononic, Inc.

The thermoelectric refrigerator uses the thermoelectric effect to cool items inside it. The refrigerator uses an electrical current to change the internal temperature, keeping food and drinks cool so they do not spoil. A thermoelectric refrigerator makes very little noise and does not use HFCs, ammonia, or propane. 

“Because you’re removing that heat and using the entire surface area of the product itself, the rejected heat is very low temperature, so we can stack multiple refrigerators in a room,” Phononic, Inc. CEO Anthony Atti said. “We can stack them on top of one another. We can build them into cabinetry, and you don’t have that high waste heat temperature that a typical compression system does.”

“What we’re proposing is that you would put one of our refrigerators or freezers right on the delivery truck, so this way you just pull the package right out and deliver it right to the door,” Atti explained. “We’re not afraid to compete on cost, but what we’re trying to demonstrate—and we’ve had a decent level of success—is how, at this stage, we can compete on value.”

According to Project Drawdown, close to 90 percent of refrigerant emissions happen at the end of the life of a refrigeration appliance. Because of this, the proper disposal of these units is necessary for preventing further damage to the climate. If refrigeration units are disposed of properly, the HFCs need to be extracted and stored properly. They can then be purified to be reused or transformed into other substances that do not harm the environment.

“If [people] decide to keep [their appliances] and maybe smash them in the backyard, there’s no regulatory mechanism that stops individuals from not disposing of refrigerants properly,” Brian Dean, head of energy efficiency and cooling at the UN-backed initiative Sustainable Energy for All, said.

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