Last Friday I visited a company in Lincoln, Welvent Limited, who are agricultural storage specialists. Large volumes of agricultural products like wheat or potatoes frequently require storage under controlled conditions of low temperature and humidity. Welvent equips farm buildings essentially with industrial-scale refrigeration equipment, plus a range of ancillaries (for example, floors designed to allow tractor access but also ducted to allow cool air to blow up through the floor).
The EU is, of course, concerned about climate issues. We hear a great deal about carbon dioxide, but other gases are more significant in greenhouse terms than CO2. Both water vapour and methane are “stronger” greenhouse gases than CO2 — though until we can find ways to stop cows emitting methane, and ways to stop the wind blowing over the ocean, there is not a lot we can do about them.
It happens that the sorts of gases used for refrigeration are worse again (though used in relatively small quantities). The EU already has comprehensive regulations about the use, recycling and disposal of these gases. It also has requirements for the replacement of currently used refrigerant gases with others which are deemed less harmful. Given that there are arrangements in hand for the end-of-life disposal of refrigerant gases, we are dealing here with the rather limited problem of leakage. The gases do no harm so long as they are hermetically contained in a sealed system.
Currently there are yet further proposed regulations going through the European parliament, which will require even more benign gases to be used (the names of these gases are an alphabet soup — R404A; R407A; R407F; R134A). The problem for the industry is that the equipment has a typical life of 25 years or so. Changes in the specified gas will certainly cost farmers a four-figure sum for replacement, and may involve a five-figure sum for major modifications to the equipment. The difficulty for both Welvent and their customers is regulatory uncertainty — what is the most cost-effective approach, given that we’re not sure which refrigerants will be mandated in five years’ time, much less twenty years?
But there is a bigger problem. The most “advanced” refrigerant gas is some 30% less efficient than those in use today. In plain terms, the same cooling effect will require 30% more power to drive it. These are big pieces of kit, typically using say 40 Kw in use. And a typical machine may run 1600 hours in a year. That’s 64 Mw hours. A 30% reduction in efficiency means that we’re wasting nearly an additional 20 Mw hours a year, per unit. There are estimated to be something like 3000 units out there at any one time. Do the math. It’s a whole lot of extra power.
So with delicious irony, a new EU regulation designed to save the planet and mitigate climate change will mean 20Mwh x 3000 = 60 Gwh of extra energy, merely to mitigate minor leaks of refrigerant. I’m afraid I’m not technically competent to work out which will do more damage, a few leaks or a massive rise in energy consumption, but at the very least the energy increase will offset a large part of the benefits envisaged — and may actually make matters worse. At the same time the measure will drive up farmers’ costs, and therefore food prices.
But not to worry. I’m sure the rapporteur on the project, Dutch Green MEP Mr. Bas Eickhout, will tell us that in a few years’ time all our electricity will come from wind farms. So that’s alright then.