In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama called on leaders in Washington to get serious about efforts to combat climate change by rethinking the way we produce and use energy. But the rethinking should not stop there. It is also time for the administration to rethink how it regulates industries that are working to combat climate change, as well.

Last September, the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) announced that the HVACR and water heating industry will invest $5 billion over the next decade for research and development of new refrigerants. The announcement was made at a meeting hosted by the White House. The new refrigerants will have a significantly lower impact on the climate than hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the dominant refrigerants used in most air conditioning and refrigeration equipment today.

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Our stated goal is to reduce global HFC greenhouse gas contribution by 80 percent by 2050. HFCs are used in closed systems and are only released into the environment as a result of leaks and improper disposal.  But some HFCs have a global warming potential that is significantly higher than that of carbon dioxide. Therefore, reducing the use of these high global warming (high-GWP) refrigerants will reduce our equipment’s impact on the environment and will positively impact climate change.

This is not the first time our industry has taken on a global environmental challenge. The ozone layer is gradually being restored as a result, in part, of industry efforts to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) under the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international environmental treaty.  Now, we hope to undertake a similar effort to phase down HFCs. 

We are not waiting for an international treaty, however.  Our industry is already in the second phase of a comprehensive research program to find suitable alternatives to high GWP refrigerants.  A wide range of alternative refrigerants are being tested, including carbon dioxide, which is already being used in some commercial refrigeration applications. But there are significant challenges that we must overcome. For example, some of the new refrigerants are not as efficient as those they would replace, and others that show considerable promise are mildly flammable and will have to be handled differently by manufacturers, installers, maintenance technicians, and homeowners. Local building codes will need to be revised to address the use of flammable refrigerants in commercial, retail, and residential buildings. And air conditioners and refrigerators will need to be reengineered to use the new refrigerants safely while still meeting energy efficiency standards.

In his speech, the President said he knows a lot of really good scientists -- some of the best in the world -- who are working on climate change. Some of those scientists the President mentioned work right here in the HVACR and water heating industry.  They are working hard on a challenge that is greater than the one posed decades ago, but their work is being made more difficult by the Obama administration’s rush to regulate our industry. 

The Department of Energy has issued more than 40 regulations for the HVAC industry in the past four years. In some cases the regulations are duplicative of work already being done voluntarily by our industry. In other cases the Department has refused to fully share the analysis it used to come up with the regulations, leaving us asking ourselves “do they know the real impact, true cost, and how difficult it will be to design and manufacture equipment to meet these new standards?”   Furthermore, given the administration’s serious interest in alternative refrigerants, it is curious that its own Department of Energy has thus far refused to even analyze possible alternatives as it sets about making new rules.  In other words, it is setting standards for the future based on past technologies. 

Our industry has a very positive track record of working with DOE on regulations that make sense for our companies and our customers, while producing significant energy savings. Unfortunately, DOE’s rush to regulate has already resulted in two ongoing legal battles that do little more than drain our resources and shift our focus from the research lab to the courthouse. We need these resources to continue our development of energy efficient equipment and to help our scientists find new refrigerants. They can’t do that if they are constantly being pulled into a fight over DOE regulations. 

The president said we need smarter regulation to solve the challenge of climate change.  We agree. But more regulation does not equal smarter regulation. We can make real progress if the administration deals with the reality of the market and the technology, and partners with industry to put our resources and our energy into research, development, and actual use of new refrigerants and technologies that reduce impact on the environment and deliver the comfort our customers expect.

Yurek is president and CEO of the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute.