Earlier versions of this article, including in the Dec. 27 print editions of The Washington Post, incorrectly said a German company pre-sold HFC-free "Greenfreeze" refrigerators, which were thought to be more environmentally friendly than refrigerators sold in the United States during the early 1990s. In fact, the nonprofit environmental group Greenpeace, which helped to engineer the refrigerators, pre-sold the units. The German company then began manufacturing the refrigerators. This version has been corrected.
Greener, HFC-free refrigerator set to enter U.S. market in 2011
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 10:42 PM
Greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide may not get as much global attention, but policymakers and business leaders view curbing these emissions as a way that nations can shrink their carbon footprints.
Refrigerators have a role in this story.
For decades, Americans have known only two types of household refrigerators: the pre-1996 fridge that uses an ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant - commonly known by its trademark name, Freon - and the subsequent models that use the global-warming refrigerant called hydrofluorocarbon (HFC).
When CFCs float into the air, their chlorine molecules eat the ozone. HFCs may not harm the ozone, but they can hang in the atmosphere for decades, absorbing radiation that would otherwise be released into space.
A better refrigerant, environmentalists have argued since the early 1990s, is a hydrocarbon refrigerant.
Made of only carbons and hydrogens, these "natural" refrigerants do not degrade the ozone and are easily broken down by the sun. Compared with the atmosphere-degrading refrigerants currently used in American households, hydrocarbons contribute little to global warming.
As early as next year, Americans may have a new hydrocarbon refrigerator option that can reduce their global warming impact and their energy bills. U.S. manufacturers would be entering the HFC-free domestic refrigeration market that the Germans helped establish in 1993.
Back then, the United States was phasing out CFCs, and the chemical industry was introducing HFCs as a possible replacement. Greenpeace, the nonprofit advocacy group, was not happy with the "environmental alternative" to CFCs, said Amy Larkin, director of Greenpeace Solutions.
Although domestic refrigeration accounts for less than 2 percent of current global HFC consumption (automobile air conditioners emit the most HFCs), an HFC refrigerant's impact on the climate is 3,830 times more potent over a 20-year period than the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
"But hydrocarbons weren't on anyone's radar," Larkin said, "and when we brought this to the government agencies, telling them these were a better, safe, efficient alternative, we were ridiculed."
Regardless, Greenpeace appealed to a small German manufacturer and helped engineer the world's first hydrocarbon domestic refrigerator. Within three weeks, Greenpeace pre-sold 70,000 HFC-free "Greenfreeze" refrigerators.
Since March 15, 1993, when the first Greenfreeze refrigerator debuted in Germany, more than 400 million hydrocarbon household units have been sold worldwide by several major manufacturers including Whirlpool, Haier and Sanyo.