The Yale Refrigerants Initiative (YRI) is a grant-funded project through the Office of Facilities, aimed at improving refrigerant management practices at Yale and phasing down hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants on campus.
HFC refrigerants are greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Over a 100 year horizon, a single molecule of HFC-404A, the most common refrigerant at Yale, warms the atmosphere 3,922 times more effectively compared with a molecule of carbon dioxide. HFCs escape from leaks in HVAC equipment that arise naturally during its operating lifetime.
HFC emissions are still growing at 15 percent per year, and are among the fastest-growing climate pollutants on Earth. As the world warms, there will be an even greater demand for cooling.
Project Drawdown's scientists have named refrigerant management as the number one climate issue, with the potential to prevent upwards of 108.53 Gigatons of CO2eq emissions (or .5 degrees Celsius) of warming by 2050 (spread across alternative refrigerants and management best practices).
YRI operates at both the college and university levels. Within Yale College, YRI tackles the two largest sources of environmental impact from student mini-fridges: energy use and leakage of refrigerant chemicals, which are potent greenhouse gases. At the university more broadly, YRI is conducting a refrigerant inventory of all buildings on campus and developing recommendations to phase down and better manage HFCs.
YRI is focusing on several core goals for summer 2021:
Continue conducting a refrigerant inventory at the university level, with specific focus on the Yale New Haven Health System
Draft policy proposals regarding leak detection of hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants (HFC); energy savings procedures during school breaks; and phasing down HFC mini-fridges on campus by 2025; and
Hosting Zoom webinars with leaders in sustainable refrigeration, marketed to university sustainability offers and student energy activists
Beyond these three goals for the summer, YRI plans to broadly improve refrigerant management at Yale. Refrigerant management has three core components:
Capture refrigerants at the end of a refrigerator's life, as opposed to venting the gases into the atmosphere
Detect and repair refrigerant leaks in HVAC equipment, especially large equipment
Transition to alternatives to HFC refrigerants, such as synthetic hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and natural refrigerants such as hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide itself, and ammonia.
YRI operates through the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC), Office of Facilities, Office of Sustainability, and Yale Student Green Council.
The bipartisan American and Manufacturing Act passed in December 2020 provides authority and funding for the federal government to phase down HFC refrigerants over the next 15 years. Then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared that the bill was the premier climate accomplishment of the 116th Congress. In late January 2021, President Biden sent the Kigali Amendment to the Senate via executive order for advice and consent for ratification. Ratification of the Amendment is likely to pass, based on previous support from Republican Senators.
YRI is committed to easing the transition between HFCs and sustainable refrigerants for institutions of higher education. In the coming months, YRI will release new guidance for how universities can best respond to HFC phase down.
WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT REFRIGERANTS?
GREENHOUSE GASES, CLIMATE CHANGE, AND ENERGY USE
REFRIGERANTS BY THE NUMBERS
After the phase-out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) emerged as the refrigerant chemical of choice for HVAC systems across the world. HFCs have no ozone-depleting potential, but are potent greenhouse gases.
Like the vast majority of institutions in America, Yale uses mostly HFC gases to operate its large industrial chillers, small air conditioning and cooling appliances in buildings and dining halls, laboratory equipment, and student mini-fridges. HFC gas enters the atmosphere because of microscopic leaks in HVAC equipment and due to poor disposal practices at the end of the refrigerator’s lifespan.
HFCs are extremely potent greenhouse gases, with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) on average 4,582 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, over a span of 100 years. Put simply, 4,582 molecules of carbon dioxide would have the same warming effect as a single molecule of HFC. In fact, according to climate scientists and economists, the complete phase-out of HFC gases would:
Prevent roughly .5 degrees C in atmospheric warming, accounting for roughly 25 percent of the Paris Agreement's temperature target
Changes in line with the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act may:
Increase American exports of HVAC equipment by $5-7 billion, and keep American manufacturing competitive in the global market
Generate 150,000 American jobs
Generate $39 billion in economic benefits annually in the United States
The North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council's Danielle Wright, speaking on the threat of HFC refrigerants and sustainable alternatives to HFC.
Although the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol phases out HFC refrigerants, the United States has only passed legislation to phased own HFCs nationwide. This late legislation suggests that coordinated action on HFCs is still emerging and will pose challenges during transition for businesses and institutions across the country.
Institutions such as Yale need a good plan to respond to near-term HFC phase down in order to maximize the economic and environmental benefits that come with refrigerant sustainability. Key issues for the university to consider are as follows:
Yale does not have a complete inventory of refrigerant chemicals on campus. Without an inventory, it is difficult to lay next steps.
Incentives also aren't aligned for refrigerant technicians to contain harmful refrigerants, above and beyond what is already required by law. The university must therefore create these incentives for facility managers and technicians alike to better manage refrigerants. See our proposal to price the social cost of refrigerant emissions in the Yale Carbon Charge.
There are thousands of student mini-fridges on campus, in addition to air conditioners, refrigerators, and chillers owned by the university. The massive scale of this issue demands a well-designed solution.
R-134A, the refrigerant used in 50 percent of Yale student mini-fridges, is 1300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Since mini-fridges aren't managed at the university level, there are effectively thousands of unaddressed HFC sources in student dormitories.
Refrigeration management suffers from epistemic failure. Most consumers, including college students, in the United States are aware of the climate impacts from cars and airplanes, but are less aware about the energy and refrigerant impact of refrigerators. YRI seeks to fill in these gaps with educational programs for students and professionals.
Occasionally, knowledge gaps can have unfortunate outcomes. Yale College students are notorious among Facilities staff for tossing their mini-fridges (many of them perfectly functional) on the street or in dumpsters during move-out. This problem has become so severe that it is known as "Yale Christmas." These dumped mini-fridges are more likely to leak refrigerants into the atmosphere. We also miss out on an important opportunity to pass on used mini-fridges to disadvantaged students and recycle them in a sustainable way.