As Europe moves toward climate neutrality by 2050, ensuring the technologies powering our economies contribute to decarbonization is key — this includes ensuring electrical grids are free of fluorinated greenhouse gases.
[This op-ed was originally published in Politico on 8 March 2023]
Man-made fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases) have a super-global warming effect, far worse than CO2, and have long been widely used in electrical switchgear (key hardware components found throughout electrical infrastructure). They contribute to climate change by ‘trapping and locking’ heat in the atmosphere. Some F-gases are also known as PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’, which when used in switchgear, risk serious harm to the environment and human health.
Given the significant risks they pose, and to meet Europe’s ambitions in the fight against climate change, it is crucial to ban the use of F-gases for new installations in electrical grids in the EU. The ongoing review of the F-gas Regulation represents a unique chance for policymakers to live up to that expectation and recognize the investments the majority of switchgear manufacturers have already taken towards F-gas free alternatives within their product portfolio. In this context, the recent report from the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee is a step in the right direction.
It is crucial to ban the use of F-gases for new installations in electrical grids in the EU.
Continuing to endorse F-gas reliant switchgear would convey the wrong message to the industry that investing in environmentally harmful technology is still acceptable, instead of directing funds towards natural gas alternatives. As a result, it would delay the decarbonization of our electricity grids and the proper development and deployment of natural origin gas technologies. Furthermore, realized investments into renewables will prove futile, as operators will need to switch back to grey technologies to remain ‘connected’ to the grid. Therefore, they will have no opportunity to support the energy transition despite their existing considerable investments into renewables R&D.
The reality of what is at stake is straightforward. F-gases used in electrical switchgear are potent contributors to climate change. They are tens of thousands of times more damaging than carbon dioxide, and their long atmospheric lifespan means that their effects on the climate persist for decades to centuries.
The reality of what is at stake is straightforward. F-gases used in electrical switchgear are potent contributors to climate change.
Electricity grids — the need to shield Europe’s strategic autonomy
Late last year, the U.S. conglomerate 3M, which owns the patent for a widely used F-gas in switchgear, announced the phaseout of these substances by 2025. European policymakers should take such announcements into account when finalizing their work on the F-gas Regulation.
Not only is this a clear signal that the industry is ready to move away from this harmful technology, but should F-gases still be allowed to be used in switchgear in the EU, fundamental questions of supply chain issues and the high risk of shortages or new external dependencies would be raised. As if our grids relying on dangerous F-gases was not bleak enough, add to that the clear debilitation of European energy strategic autonomy.
‘Walk the talk!’
Thankfully, there is an environmentally friendly and economically sustainable alternative: natural-origin gases. These do not have any associated health or environmental risks and despite requiring higher initial investments to install, they entail considerably lower maintenance costs. Already today, the majority of transmission and distribution manufacturers have based their solutions upon natural-origin gas, and many applications are available and successfully proven in operation.
Thankfully, there is an environmentally friendly and economically sustainable alternative: natural-origin gases.
The question is: why should Europe insist on F-Gases in switchgear when a major part of the leading industry itself has made it clear it is going in the opposite direction? Let us not turn a blind eye to natural-origin gases, which can shield Europe from dependencies, better protect human health and safeguard Europe’s environmental commitments.
Market participants are at a crossroads where they must decide to either continue to use F-gases in switchgear or move to natural-origin gas solutions. Additionally, switchgear remain in place for about 40 years, so before deciding on the way forward, operators need a clear signal from policymakers of how they should proceed.
The EU has a responsibility to protect its citizens and the planet.
It is imperative that the use of F-gases in electrical switchgear for new installations be banned in the EU. The EU has a responsibility to protect its citizens and the planet, and banning these chemicals in electrical switchgear is a necessary step in fulfilling that responsibility.
This op-ed is co-signed by the Switching Gears for Net Zero Alliance (integrated by Mitsubishi Electric, Nuventura, Schneider Electric, Siemens AG, Siemens Energy and Toshiba), Eaton, ILJIN Electric, and HSP Hochspannungsgeräte GmbH..