Propane persuasion: air-conditioning in China

Propane persuasion: air-conditioning in China

Much of the work of UNIDO’s Montreal Protocol Division occurs in the refrigeration sector. To date, there have been more than 450 projects in 61 countries.

After successfully phasing out most of the harmful chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1990s, the focus shifted to phasing out damaging hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

At first glance, propane (R-290) appeared to be the ideal solution for the air conditioning sector in China. Under the Montreal Protocol, China had to phase out hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) by 2030. Propane is natural, ozone friendly, energy efficient and has very low global warming potential.

However, there was a great deal of resistance to introducing the substance. One of the key obstacles was  safety; propane is highly flammable.

But the refrigeration sector had already provided an example to  follow. Since the 1990s, when the Chinese market had to phase out CFCs, the Chinese government with the help of UNIDO made the switch to isobutane (R-600a) and cyclopentane in the domestic refrigeration industry. Like propane, these alternatives are flammable, but they are also climate-friendly, ozone-friendly, and energy efficient. Since their introduction to  the market, there has been a major increase in refrigerator manufacturing in China. There have been no known accidents. The conversion has saved around 16 billion kilowatt-hours of electric power, equivalent to the annual average energy consumption of more than four million people in China.

Despite this precedent, it was still difficult to make the shift to propane in the air conditioning sector. “We  had a very hard time at the beginning,” said Zhong Zhifeng, the Deputy Director of the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office in the Ministry of Environmental Protection. “To adopt a new technology, you need a huge amount of effort – money and time – so we faced a lot of challenges.”

So, how did the Ministry overcome the safety concerns? At this question, Zhifeng smiled. “First we had to  convince ourselves,” he said. 

The Ministry had to be absolutely certain that the new technology would not endanger human health. They engaged a third party institution, specializing in risk assessment, and after a thorough examination, it was found that the risks were very low. In fact, the chance of something going wrong was lower than being hit by lightning.

In order to convince others, the Ministry encouraged the manufacturers to research propane themselves.  Slowly, other companies began to accept that not only was propane sufficiently safe, but it was energy efficient.

A pilot programme at the Midea company was the first project in China under the Multilateral Fund, and involved close work between UNIDO and the Chinese government, technicians from enterprises, and the industrial associate, China Household Electrical Appliances Association (CHEAA). The project successfully promoted the use of propane as a suitable alternative to HCFCs.

Following the success of the demonstration project, the government, with UNIDO’s assistance, is now incentivizing enterprises to convert to propane in a manner which is market-orientated.

Promising collaborations have resulted after seven years of hard work by FECO, CHEAA, and the industry. The first collaboration was Shenzhen University’s purchase and installation of 243 sets of propane air conditioners, and other collaborations have followed. In 2016, the largest air conditioner manufacturers began promoting  propane conversions.

While Zhifeng acknowledged it will still take time, he believed that with joint effort and persistence, propane would be marketed and promoted successfully in the air conditioning sector.  

Generally, there is increasing commitment to green procurement for public institutions in China. While propane has been used successfully in smaller air conditioners, Zhifeng looks forward to transferring this experience to a larger scale. 

“We still have some barriers,” he said, “but in the future we believe we will be successful.”

For more background see: UNIDO project to green Chinese air-conditioning production serves as example for Africa and West Asia

See also the new video (below) about the project Promoting low global warming potential refrigerants for air-conditioning sectors in high ambient temperature countries (PRAHA)