A newly released report by the European Commission (EC) pushes the adoption of heat pumps using natural refrigerants as a way to develop the European heat pump market against non-European competition.

Natural refrigerants-based equipment “can be an opportunity for the sector to differentiate itself with respect to non-EU competitors and to reduce dependence on non-EU suppliers.”

The report, “Heat Pumps in the European Union – Status Report on Technology Development, Trends, Value Chain and Markets,” was drafted by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service.

It was highlighted at the ATMOsphere (ATMO) Europe Summit 2022 by Eric Lecomte, Policy Officer at DG (Directorate-General) Energy, a department in the European Commission. ATMO Europe was organized by ATMOsphere, publisher of Hydrocarbons21.com.

The report also points out the risk of relying on fluorinated gases from outside Europe, mainly China, whose production of HFCs is dominating the market. The European Union is well positioned to benefit “from market trends such as the reduction of environmental impacts through regulations on Ecodesign and F-gases,” the report says.

A more ambitious HFC phase down under the EU F-gas Regulation also helps the EU to reduce its reliance on HFCs imported (both legally and illegally), the report says. China is the leading producer of HFCs worldwide, with Chinese companies Dongyue and Sinochem as the main halogenated refrigerant suppliers, followed by Chemours, DuPont and Honeywell in the U.S.

A shift to natural refrigerants can thus represent “a market opportunity and area for innovation,” notes the report, adding that natural refrigerants may also have an advantage in terms of price trends and stability, and they are not patented.

“There is already some evidence of production lines being reconverted, and new ones started, to focus on natural refrigerants,” says the report, citing a recent study by ATMOsphere, “Accelerating the EU’s shift towards natural refrigerant domestic heat pumps.”

Hydrocarbon-based heat pumps in particular are being deployed by an increasing number of European companies, such as Ecoforest, HSK Lazar, NIBE, Panasonic and Viessmann.

The EC report also recognizes EU technology leadership in the overall heat pump sector. “European manufacturers are technology leaders in air-water, ground-water and brine-water heat pumps.” European companies are especially strong in ground-source heat pumps and larger heat pumps for the commercial and district heating and cooling segments, the report adds. The report also points out EU leadership in patents of high-value inventions for “mainly-heating” heat pumps, with the EU accounting for 48% in the 2017–2019 period.

Top ten countries for high-value inventions, ‘mainly-heating’ heat pumps, 2017–2019. Source: European Commission

Addressing REPowerEU issue

Questioned about the alleged discrepancies between the EU’s REPowerEU program to accelerate the deployment of heat pumps and greater ambition in the EC’s proposed phase down of HFCs under the F-gas Regulation, Lecomte replied that “the Commission proposal is mindful about the timing of the switch from high GWP [to lower-GWP refrigerants].”

In regard to this debate, the report notes that the recent review of the international product standard IEC 60335-2-40 will allow for the safe use of very climate-friendly refrigerants in all smaller heat pumps and greatly facilitate this refrigerant transition.

In the “unlikely event” of the emergence of a major HFC market disruption (which has not occurred in the first seven years, 2015–2022, of the F-gas Regulation quota system), the proposed F-gas Regulation includes the possibility for the Commission to exempt a relevant sector or adjust the quota allocation mechanisms, the report says. “The efforts to reduce the climate impact of refrigerants are therefore fully coherent with the increased roll-out of heat pumps.”

This report is part of the work done by the Clean Energy Technology Observatory (CETO), a joint initiative between the JRC and two DGs, Research and Innovation (R&I) and Energy. CETO is designed to help address the complexity and multi-faced character of the transition to a climate-neutral society in Europe.

ATMOsphere contributed information for the report to DG Energy during the stakeholder consultations process. Other entities involved in the process were EHPA, EPEE and AREA, among others.

Want to find out more, or have something to say about this story? Join the ATMO Connect network to meet and engage with like-minded stakeholders in the clean cooling and natural refrigerant arena.