Universities can reduce GHG emissions and be paid for replacing cooling


Colleges and universities across the U.S. have the potential to play a major role in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and many are unaware of it. 

Every year, colleges and universities either replace or retrofit the equipment that provides cooling in campus buildings. This cooling equipment is often in the form of large chiller systems found in basements or in a central cooling plant somewhere on campus. 

The larger systems can contain thousands of pounds of refrigerant gas, most of which is in the form of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). Some of the older chiller systems contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have a high potential to contribute to global warming and can have detrimental effects on the ozone layer when released into the atmosphere.

Although it is illegal to intentionally release these CFCs into the air, it does happen as a result of the equipment being old and inefficient. Because of this inefficiency, most universities have scheduled the the old equipment to be replaced. 

What happens to these refrigerants when the equipment is removed for replacement or retrofitted? Usually it is recovered by a technician or outside contractor, recycled and sold back into the refrigerant market in the U.S.  

Most of the time the contractor hired by the university to perform the work then gets the monetary value for the used refrigerant. Like any commodity, there is a market for it, particularly certain CFCs and HCFCs such as R-12 and R-22. 

What could be unsustainable about recycling old refrigerants? 

Well, in the case of the CFCs that have not been produced since 1996 (as encouraged by the Montreal Protocol), they are being sold back to facilities that are still operating old, inefficient chiller systems that use more energy and leak at a higher rate than the newer, more efficient equipment.

So what is the alternative? 

Given that, over time, the remainder of the CFCs left in the U.S. eventually will leak into the atmosphere, the California Climate Action Reserve, with help from industry and NGOs, developed a protocol to account for the GHG emission reductions associated with the destruction of each individual CFC species. 

The protocol takes into account where the gas came from, leak rates, GWP of replacement refrigerants and emissions from transportation and project activities, and after a lengthy 3rd party audit, carbon credits are issued to the project developer as an incentive to those companies that destroy, rather than recycle certain CFCs. These offsets are then sold to buyers in both the voluntary and compliance carbon markets in the US.

Several of the largest universities in the U.S. already have recovered and sold CFCs they no longer needed as a result of the end-of-life replacement of large chiller systems. The price for the CFCs is equal, if not more, than the price being offered by those companies that want to recycle and continue using these harmful refrigerants. 

As an example, A-GAS Americas worked with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., to recover and purchase approximately 16,000 lbs of R-500 refrigerant from 2 large chillers that were being retrofitted. This R-500 was destroyed as part of a carbon offset project and resulted in the avoidance of about 53,000 ton of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. That is the equivalent of taking about 10,000 cars off the road for one year. Not only did the University contribute the gas to the project, they were paid $260,000 for it. We have done similar projects with the University of Florida in Gainesville, University of Kansas, and many others.

How do you get your institution involved in this? Here are some simple steps:

  • Reach out to the folks in the university’s facilities management department and get an inventory of each chiller system on campus. Get information on its age, size, type of refrigerant and when it is scheduled to be replaced. 
  • Contact a project developer.
  • You and the developer then can research the monetary value of the various refrigerants, as well as the potential amount of CO2 reductions from its destruction.
  • When the system is being replaced, the gas will be removed and recovered and the university will get paid for the amount of gas recovered. 

Through these programs, your institution can contribute to a GHG reduction project and earn money to further other on-campus activities.