As a signatory of the Paris Agreement, Australia has committed to reducing its emissions to 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Almost a quarter of all electricity generated in Australia is used to power HVAC&R systems, and around 80 per cent of this electricity is generated using fossil fuels. Through its energy use, HVAC&R contributes significantly to the country’s emissions.
As part of its climate strategy, the government has also signed the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Australia has committed to reduce the bulk import of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – powerful global warming gases – by 85 per cent by 2036. This target is “tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent” or “CO2e” based. High global warming potential (GWP) HFCs will therefore disappear first. Refrigeration and air conditioning systems are by far the largest users of HFC gases.
HVAC&R will therefore play a vital role in achieving Australia’s climate goals. However, there are opportunities for enhancing licensing for HVAC&R technicians that if not addressed will result in poorer outcomes while also creating safety risks, not only for technicians but also for homeowners and building occupants.
HVAC&R technicians in Australia are covered by two licensing regimes: the national ARC-hosted environmental scheme; and in addition state-based occupational licences in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
The national licensing regime is administered by the Australian Refrigeration Council (ARC) to support regulations under the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management Act 1989, a responsibility of the Department of the Environment and Energy. There are currently around 100,000 licence holders. Licences are mandatory for purchasing, handling and working on systems that use synthetic (CFC/HCFC/HFC) gases. No ARC license is required, however, to work with natural refrigerants such as carbon dioxide, ammonia or hydrocarbons, or the new generation of synthetic refrigerants called hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs).
Today, about 90 per cent of refrigerants in use in Australia are covered by the ARC licences. But as we transition to alternative refrigerants through the HFC phase-down, this will decrease. By 2030, only around 70 per cent of the refrigerant bank will be covered by ARC licences. It is AIRAH’s position that any scheme should cover all refrigerants, to limit both direct and indirect emissions.
Workers with a Certificate II qualification (360 hours of training as opposed to over 1,000 hours training for a Certificate III qualification) can obtain an ARC refrigerant handling licence. The Certificate II qualifications do not provide workers with the necessary technical and/or safety knowledge or skills to safely and effectively work on all HVAC&R systems. It should be noted that indirect emissions from generating the power to run HVAC&R systems is much greater than direct emissions from refrigerant leakage, so ensuring that only suitably trained staff install and maintain systems, to maintain maximum energy efficiency, must be a key aspect of licensing.
Although the limited ARC licence only allows workers to install certain systems, anecdotal evidence suggests that Certificate II workers are installing, commissioning and servicing equipment that they are not licensed to work on. This has a two-fold effect of increasing direct emissions (from leaked/vented refrigerant) and indirect emissions (from inefficient systems) as well as increasing safety issues.
At the state and territory level, licensing for HVAC&R technicians varies across the country. Some states, such as New South Wales, require all work to be done by Certificate III-qualified RAC technicians. All other states and the ARC-hosted scheme allow Certificate II-qualified trades to perform some tasks by way of a restricted licence commensurate with competency.
Finally, neither licensing regime requires technicians to undertake any ongoing or mandatory training, despite the fact the industry is constantly changing. Most of the refrigerant gas that licensed technicians have traditionally been trained on will be replaced soon, and the alternative refrigerants can create increased safety issues. They can be flammable (e.g. hydrocarbons and HFOs), or toxic (ammonia and certain HFOs and HFC/HFO blends), or operate at high pressures (carbon dioxide).
To achieve our national climate goal commitments and provide a safe and comfortable environment for all Australians, we need a skill-based, harmonised licensing system for HVAC&R technicians.