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Lockdown factor adds to uncertainty of 2021 F-Gas quota cut – Refrigeration and Air Conditioning

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Experts have warned during the latest RAC F-Gas Question Time that the unpredictable market impact of further major cuts in F-Gas quota set to come into place in 2021 will run parallel to the seismic market changes resulting from the covid-19 pandemic.  But what exactly does this mean for refrigerant engineers and the drive to realise more sustainable cooling?

A panel of experts joined RAC Editor Andrew Gaved for the magazine’s first ever online F-Gas Question Time on 30 April to reflect on how the next quota cut from January next year would effectively remove 40 per cent of existing HFCs from the market.

Price volatility, as seen with the previous cut in 2018, was viewed at the previous question time last October as a likely occurrence in the build-up to the next quota changes in 2021, but it is uncertain if the Covid-19 pandemic risks exacerbating or alleviating refrigerant demand.

Cooling specialists involved in the supply and use of refrigerant products as a result of Covid-19 are finding themselves focused largely on maintaining essential services in areas linked to critical infrastructure. This includes supporting retail supply chains, the healthcare sector, as well as data centres that are all under intense pressure during the pandemic.

Demand drop

Mark Hughes, business development manager for Question Time’s sponsor Chemours, said that different parts of the industry have been affected more than others from the pandemic, with an overall significant fall in the demand and volume of products needed.

He said, “Basically, a lot of the retrofit and new install activity is being reduced and is being put on hold – that is what we are seeing out there.”

Mr Hughes said, “our industry has done a sterling job. It wasn’t really clear at the beginning that we really were protecting industry, but it’s pretty clear now as people have rode to the rescue and we have continued to manufacture refrigerants.”

Despite the current market difficulties, sectors reliant on refrigerant remain under pressure through mechanisms such as F-Gas regulation and the Kigali Amendment to curb their greenhouse gas output as a result of refrigerant use.  Manufacturers and refrigerant providers are also facing the issue of ensuring improved system efficiency as a means to improve the sustainability of different systems in line with various national decarbonisation agendas, particularly in European markets.

Mr Hughes said that the issue of climate change, and the role industries such as refrigeration and cooling must play in limiting its impacts, would require new developments to be considered, even with the current lull in demand as businesses and societies are in lockdown around the world.

Mark Woods, an industry stalwart currently running the Refmech consultation company, said that a recent busy period for the organisation in providing gas changes, capital quotes and placement works, had now all but ended following the UK lockdown.

He said, “We are just covering emergency callouts in this very short period of time.”

Customers that rely on groups such as Refmech were presently facing unprecedented uncertainty, with companies able to perform a diverse array of work better placed to weather some of the changes, while others were having to “shut up shop”, according to Mr Woods.

Mr Woods added, “There are eight of us at the moment [in Refmech] and If I tell you that 80 per cent of us are on furlough, it will show you how we have had to scale back as a small business.”

How then did Mr Woods see the sector moving on from the current lockdown?

He said, “I think the changes in the next couple of years will see us moving back into more natural refrigerants, but I think that has already started and is moving well. I think we really have hit the breaks at the moment, and we will see what happens when we come out of this.”

Mr Woods said that he was worried that with customers pushing for emergency services only, maintenance and compliance checks that remain vital for ensuring the safe and efficient operating of cooling systems were not being carried out.

He added, “In the short-term, I can understand that will be ok. But I think we need to have a strategy and safe way of working, so that actually people can continue to do their F-Gas checks, compliance tests and actually carry out their maintenance. As we go into summer, I think we will have a lot of disruption if we don’t.”

The furlough effect

RAC Magazine editor Andrew Gaved said that listeners to the Question time event had asked if there was any idea of the overall number of F-Gas registered engineers that may presently be furloughed.

Graeme Fox, head of certification body Refcom, was asked for his insight on the impact of the pandemic on engineer capacity.

Mr Fox said that there remained limited data at present to indicate the exact number of individuals not working at the present time, particularly with lockdown restrictions still in place as a result of Covid-19.

He said, “Certainly I’ve been pretty clear over the last couple of weeks with the message that F-Gas checks do need to be continued.”

Mr Fox shared the sentiments of Mark Woods on the need, from both a regulatory, environmental and safety basis, to maintain checks on refrigerant-using systems to ensure efficient ongoing operation.

He accepted that the unprecedented challenges posed by Covid-19 had created confusion over the need to maintain work, albeit under new safety guidance from bodies such as Public Health England. This confusion was largely the result of ongoing debates over the last month about how work in the cooling sector should be deemed essential to battle the pandemic, or otherwise be postponed until restrictions are eased.

Mr Fox said that clearer messaging was now starting to be understood by industry on best practice for prioritising work and projects that should go ahead in line with stricter on-site guidance, however some challenges remained around educating end users.

He added, “I do hear quite a lot from members saying that they have tried to go and do their statutory leak checks and things like that and finding they have customers who are not allowing them on site. So that is a problem.”

“So my advice to members, when asked if we should be doing these checks, I say yes, you absolutely should.  It is environmental law at the end of the day and government has not reduced the demands of any environmental laws that I have seen.”

Current advice from Refcom is that any registered engineer still able to attend regular maintenance checks should continue to do so if they can maintain social distancing protocols and are not showing any symptoms of the coronavirus, no matter how mild.

Mr Fox urged specialists to put in place their own site-attendance protocols that includes basic risk assessment to limit any potential spread of infections.

He said, “These are for silly things that you don’t think about. When you are signing into a site, when you arrive there, don’t use their pens. Silly little things like that people don’t often think about.”

“If you cannot do the work because the site owner won’t allow it or maybe you have too many engineers furloughed so you cannot physically do the work, what you do need to do is update your own copy of the F-Gas logbook. Make sure the records clearly state that you have tried to attend to the work, but because of the current crisis you cannot do that and that you intend to go as soon as practically possible.”

Mr Fox argued that it may be prudent to update the logbook on a regular monthly basis until work is completed to show a clear intention to perform maintenance work and checks as is legally required.

Business uncertainty

The F-Gas Question Time panel noted that the wide-ranging implications of the pandemic lockdown in the UK and across Europe has had a severe impact on businesses across a vast number of sectors.

Policy expert Ray Gluckman was asked during the session if the incoming quota reductions next year would be impacted by the pandemic, and whether a wide number of businesses that are operating at reduced or zero capacity might reduce the challenge of limiting refrigerant demand.

Mr Gluckman said that uncertainty over just how long lockdown restrictions may remain in place – as well as if any additional outbreaks may occur and prolong or require additional measures from government – made it impossible right now to determine impacts into 2021 and beyond.

He cited analysis from other panellists concerning the food service sector and how parts of the economy may struggle in the short and medium-term due to the lasting impacts of the pandemic.

Mr Gluckman said, “The food service sector, whatever happens to the lockdown, is going to be pretty slow coming out of this. Even if the government allows it [to open]. Are people going to readily want to go to a crowded pub or restaurant? Probably not, or are businesses going to introduce social distancing so they can have only half the numbers in a restaurant, for example?”

“I fear that for those companies, many will go out of business. I hadn’t really thought about the knock-on effect for our industry and there must be an impact. So in terms of the F-Gas regulation, it arguably will ease the pressure of the next quota cut.”

Mr Gluckman added that refrigerant demand can be split into two parts representing the refrigerant going into new systems, and the gas used to top up leakage.

He said, “If significant parts of the economy aren’t buying as much brand new equipment then the demand for refrigerant falls. Logically the demand for leakage shouldn’t go down, although people are focusing on emergency servicing and that means systems leaking a little will be performing badly, but they will be performing.”

“So that will put up the energy bill and environmental impact, but they won’t get serviced. Then again, the demand for refrigerant will drop. I suppose logically Covid-19 will make the next step in January 2021 easier to achieve, but I don’t know.”

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