Keeping Cool May Become A More Costly Proposition

Under new agreement, equipment will be replaced or updated to avoid ozone-depleting chemicals

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE dog days and high utility bills of summer may be over, but in the future keeping cool will not be getting any cheaper.

Over the next two years, vast quantities of machinery will have to be replaced or retrofitted to meet the demands of the Montreal Protocol, an agreement signed by 123 nations requiring chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals to be eliminated by the end of 1995.

As the deadline gets closer, everyone from the local auto shop to the White House has begun preparing for the new regulations.

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Some $200 billion worth of refrigeration and air conditioning equipment in the United States is currently dependent on CFCs. Recent estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the price tag for the phaseout of CFCs at $10 billion. Worldwide, the cost of replacing the 1.5 billion pounds of CFCs consumed each year will likely be several times that amount.

At the White House, where two 350-ton chilling units work to keep things cool, General Service Administration officials spent the summer months analyzing the costs and benefits of retrofitting the air conditioning system.

Cathy Zoi, of the White House Office of Environmental Policy, says that no decisions or cost estimates are available yet. She points out, however, that new air conditioning units will be more efficient than the models now in use. ``We are going to do whatever makes good economic sense,'' Ms. Zoi says.

For consumers, the biggest expense will likely occur at the auto repair shop. The most common automotive refrigerant, R-12, will be not be manufactured after 1995. A few years ago, a 12-ounce can of R-12 cost about $1. Today, the same can costs upwards of $10 and there is now a $3.65 tax on every pound of R-12 consumed. Next year that tax will rise to $4.65, and then to $5.65 by 1995.

The replacement for R-12, a compound called 134A, an ozone-safe hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), will work in car air conditioners. But it is not a simple replacement. Consumers with CFC air conditioning systems will have to pay for expensive retrofits which could cost up to $1,200.

For building owners, the cost of obtaining CFCs or retrofitting equipment will be significantly higher.

``It's one thing to get a CFC recharge for a car. It's another to get a recharge for a building 50 or 100 stories high,'' says Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy in Arlington, Va., an industry group that has been monitoring the phaseout of CFCs.

Large chillers can use several thousand pounds of CFCs, while most cars use two or three pounds, he points out.

Mr. Fay says that American building owners are poorly prepared to deal with the new regulations, which will require the retrofit or replacement of some 70,000 chilling units nationwide, as well as 2 million to 3 million refrigeration units.

The new regulations will create demand for recycled CFCs. Industry officials expect that the annual demand for recycled CFCs could reach 50 million pounds by 1996. However, the supply of recycled CFCs will eventually be depleted and consumers will have to convert their equipment to HFCs, the officials say.

Despite the expected surge in demand for recycled CFCs, federal officials do not expect to see shortages of the compound. ``We expect to have a good supply of CFCs well past the turn of the century,'' says Steve Seidel, acting director of the EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division.

AMERICAN air conditioning manufacturers, meanwhile, are exporting increasing amounts of non-CFC cooling equipment.

Prodded in part by the Montreal Protocol, these companies exported a record $4.1 billion in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment in 1992. The 1992 figures were a 23 percent increase over 1991 exports and figures for the first quarter of 1993 point to another record-breaking year for the industry.

The move away from older CFC equipment should increase energy efficiency in the US. Northern States Power, the largest utility in Minnesota, has recognized the potential energy savings and is now offering rebates to customers who replace their CFC-driven chillers with new, more efficient equipment.

``We believe we will save enough power that we can avoid building a new power plant,'' explains Sarah Conners, who runs the rebate program for the Minneapolis-based utility.

Northern States will spend $3.5 million over the next seven years to encourage customers to replace their CFC chillers, Ms. Conners says.

The first of its kind in the country, Conners says she expects the program to save about 240,000 pounds of CFCs per year. She, too, believes that building owners are unprepared for the CFC phaseout.

``If building owners delay replacing their equipment for too long, they may have serious problems getting the equipment or the people to do it,'' she says. ``CFCs are going to be like gold in the vault. It's going to be expensive to replace. That is, if you can get it.''

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