Why is Estimating Fugitive Emissions Inaccurate?

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HVAC equipment on top of a building

Why is Estimating Fugitive Emissions Inaccurate?

At Trakref, we’re an advocate for proper tracking of fugitive emissions from refrigerants to curb the number of greenhouse gases and air pollution that we’re causing to the planet. However, we know many companies are new to refrigerant management and fugitive emissions reporting, especially as pressure for better ESG reporting persists in recent years.

With a lack of information on leaks and hazardous air pollutants, many companies decide to estimate their fugitive emissions. This isn’t the best solution, though. Estimates of fugitive emissions are unreliable and inaccurate – they don’t fully capture the information about refrigerants that a company is emitting into the atmosphere. Still, it may seem like an estimate on how facilities are depleting the ozone or causing Global Warming is the best that can be done with limited data, or it is what an auditor suggests.

At Trakref, we’ve developed a better solution for reporting on fugitive emissions – our own proprietary Sustainability Fugitive Emissions Factor. As we’ve developed it, we’ve been monitoring what is problematic about estimating and determining how we can provide companies just starting their ESG reporting journey with better information on fugitive emissions.

But why are we embarking on this journey?

We want to lead the way in better ESG reporting and environmental sustainability because we know good reporting will ultimately lead to better leak detection, and in turn, help us fight climate change.

The Focus On The Oil and Gas Industry And Other ESG Aspects

As with anything new, ESG reporting is still finding its footing. Companies are deciding what they want to report on as far as their environmental footprint and corporate sustainability, and what information is most relevant. This means that there are few standards and little consistency in the way that ESG reporting is done.

For example, in looking at various ESG reports, we found many companies want to reduce emissions and answer sustainability audit questions, but how they were going about it would be very different. Some focused on aspects more relevant to the oil and gas industry, such as moving to electric fleets, reducing corporate travel, gas wells, or reliance on coal. Others talked about regulations they were following, such as the Clean Air Act or other Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Of course, there will be some variations in ESG reporting based on industry, but there is not currently a clear set of standard aspects to report on.

We especially noticed that many reports lacked information about refrigerant management. We see this as a large oversight – environmental science points to refrigerants as a leading cause of climate change. It’s where most fugitive emissions from a company come from.

For the few that did mention refrigerants, we noted that the reporting on fugitive emissions was usually estimated, and they were widely inconsistent, even in the same industry. We could tell that different factors and different information were used to make these estimates about fugitive emissions, leading to unreliable and inaccurate information.

This is not to blame anyone for using estimates for emissions – we certainly understand why they’re being used and are appealing. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency has a rough estimate of emissions but advocacy groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and Climate Chance do not have any specific regulations or suggestions about ESG reporting, so companies must make up their own process. At the same time, we know that they do not fully capture the risk that facilities pose to the atmosphere.

At Trakref, our mission is to stop the planet from continuing to heat. Fugitive emissions from refrigerants are a major source of climate change. If we can’t report on them properly, how will we even know where to start?

The Infrastructure to Measure Greenhouse Gases Is Not in Place

Part of the problem is that ESG reporting is just starting to become mainstream. As mentioned, while there are some guidelines to reporting, there are no official rules or regulations – most companies are looking at past reports from similar industries when planning to report on industrial activities and their fugitive emissions.

Lack of understanding isn’t the only issue, though – infrastructure is also a problem. In the past, information about emissions, from refrigeration to comfort cooling, was siloed. This information, if there was any information at all, was relegated to HVAC/R pros. These professionals didn’t feel pressure to collect information that could be later tied to saving the ozone or reducing the impact of climate change. The pressure was on keeping systems running through maintenance and stopping leakage when it got bad enough that a system wasn’t working properly.

The development of ESG reporting has led to the breaking down of siloes, though. Information from HVAC/R pros is needed for proper reporting, and executive bonuses may even be tied to HVAC/R performance because it is leading to more carbon dioxide and fugitive emissions in the air. Now, monitoring is not just in the realm of a facility manager – it’s also something that C-suite executives are looking for.

Despite the breaking down of siloes, tracking still isn’t where it needs to be to properly understand fugitive emissions and the leaking of other gases, from HFCs to HCFCs. From understanding total emissions to looking just at fugitive emissions, many processes are still stuck in old technology. Instead of using more modern technology, the process of tracking what companies emit is still based on spreadsheets and paper logs. This makes it difficult for proper communication between teams and the production of useful information.

smog fugitive emissions over a city

Lack of Tracking Leads to Air Pollution

There is risk involved when you are not working toward the production of useful, measured information. You may not be sure what fugitive emissions, GHG emissions, refrigerants, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals and gases are leaking into the air. Not tracking equipment leaks and fugitive emissions from facilities ultimately leads to more chemicals in our atmosphere.

We’re already seeing climate change’s effects on our world, from effects on health to loss of land. Still, we haven’t seen the worst effects. Some scientists predict that we may only have six years to stop the worst parts of climate change.

This does not give us a long period to synchronize our information so we can fight refrigerants’ impact on the planet.

Turning to Factors

As companies start out on their ESG reporting and find that they are lacking information about equipment and gases from fugitive sources, they often look for a quick solution. One piece of technology that executives often turn to is factors.

According to the EPA, an emissions factor is used to estimate air pollutant emissions from a normally-operating process or activity. The simplest form is a ratio of the mass of pollutant emitted per unit of activity generating the emissions.

Historically, these factors have been based on emissions test data, material balance calculations, modeling, and engineering judgment. Currently, many factors can be found under the EPA’s WebFire database. These are often the most widely used factors, although proprietary factors are also available.

Factors can be a great solution and are often better than estimates. They allow companies in the process of the development of better standards to report on leakage in their facilities and the impact they pose on the environment. However, there is a major gap that we found – there aren’t many refrigerant-specific factors out there.

At Trakref, when we noticed that the estimated leakage of fugitive emissions in current factors didn’t always focus on refrigerants, we decided to step in. We knew with our history in leak detection and our advocacy for curbing fugitive emissions, from natural gas to aerosols to hydrocarbons, we could create a factor that provided refrigerant-specific information.

Creating Our Factor

For 25+ years, as a software corporation, Trakref has been using our technologies, including our regulatory compliance software, to help companies with the maintenance and tracking of their equipment and the gases they are releasing into the air. We knew we had the resources to create an emissions factor that would help companies with refrigerant tracking, and by doing so, start them on their journey to help the world by mitigating the risk of their facility.

To start creating our factor, we first evaluated gaps that we saw in existing emissions factors. There are often inaccuracies and inconsistencies in all factors. After all, while better than estimates, they are still not as precise as properly tracking emissions for a facility, so there is the risk that they are not completely accurate. Still, we knew current factors could be doing a better job at providing fugitive emissions information about refrigerants.

Next, we combined our analysis as environmental software providers with our proprietary information. Over our many years working in the industry, we’ve seen many an example of information prepared well. We took our knowledge of what information is the most useful to companies, along with our understanding of what regulatory agencies such as the EPA are looking for, to determine what we wanted to include in the development of our factor.

coding language on a screen

Building on the Past

Of course, we’re not the first people to embark on the development of a factor. Factors have been used for quite a while to determine the health of a company’s commitment to sustainability. The EPA has many of them listed in their WebFIRE database, and there are plenty of proprietary factors as well.

We also knew that all fugitive emissions factors have inaccuracies and inconsistencies. After all, they are substituting for precisely-tracked information about leaks and the risk of having faulty equipment. We knew there was no way to create a “perfect” factor – we could just continue to improve on what already exists to create one that is better for companies looking to track fugitive emissions related to refrigerants.

We studied current factors and took what we liked about their information about gases and emissions, and the information they created to provide to the EPA, while refining parts we thought could be improved. We also made our factor more relevant to refrigeration. As mentioned, we didn’t find many factors that focused entirely on fugitive emissions from refrigeration, and that’s something we wanted to provide.

Incorporating Best Practices

In addition to building on the past and continuing to improve on the factors available, we ensured our factor incorporated best practices so companies can meet EPA regulations and create better reporting standards. Some of the best practices we considered include:

ISO 14001

This international standard aims to help the management of organizations protect the environment by mitigating adverse effects. It maps out criteria for an environmental management system, or EMS.

Compliance Regulations and Goal-Setting Standards

Finally, we looked at more general compliance regulations and goal-setting standards across industries, as well as those suggested by agencies such as the EPA. We factored in what we believe works, taking our experience from consulting with companies from various industries.

Getting Industry-Specific

Existing factors tend to be broad and not industry-specific. We see this as a major source of risk for creating accurate, usable data. The information about fugitive emissions that a grocery chain’s equipment has won’t be the same as a retailer’s equipment, and that won’t be the same as a hospital’s equipment. For our factor, we wanted to make sure that we were able to tailor the information based on the industry of the company using it.

Our factor has common industries in mind. When you use it, you can import your industry, and information will change based on that information. This way, you can ensure that the information you have is tailored and unique to your company. We’ve worked with companies across numerous industries, so we have this knowledge and can assure that our data is sound.

Creating a Proprietary Data Warehouse

Factors for fugitive emissions can’t be static – they need to constantly be evolving as new information becomes available. If they don’t, the information will be problematic, inaccurate, and will not accurately reflect the impact a facility is having.

To make sure that our fugitive emissions factor continues to be best-in-class, our warehouse is constantly collecting information about property size, application, location, asset list, cooling demands, types of services, service intervals, repairs, damage, maintenance, emissions, and weather. We’ve included information from past projects and we’ll continue to update it with projects that we’re currently working on.

This makes our factor a rich resource for determining the health of your sustainability program by providing information on fugitive emissions and other gasses you may be leaking. It is specifically built with refrigeration information and will continue to be improved.

The Effect of Our Factor

So what do we ultimately hope will be the effect of our factor?

We hope that as people use our factor, it leads to better reporting around refrigerants. As mentioned, reporting right now on fugitive emissions from refrigerants is sparse. Many are from estimates, and we know that fugitive emission estimates are not the best source of information. They often underestimate leaks and the chemical impact that a company is having on the environment.

More accurate data is needed. We know fugitive emissions from refrigeration are a top contributor to climate change, and curbing leaks is important to helping the health of our planet. If we don’t have an accurate count of the fugitive emissions that we’re currently sending into the environment, though, then it’s difficult to know where to start.

We also hope that as more people use the factor, more awareness grows around the need for refrigerant management. While issues related to oil and other gasses and chemical issues are typically reported on in ESG reporting, we would like to see more information about refrigerants. We hope by providing a trusted factor that we can see more companies begin to provide information about refrigerants.

Going Beyond the Factor

The factor doesn’t solve all of our problems, even though it can be a major source of good. It is a good steppingstone. It’s a great way for companies who haven’t been diligently tracking refrigerants to get solid numbers about their fugitive emissions. However, we encourage companies to go further to truly have the most impact on the environment.

At Trakref, we think of companies as being in two buckets when it comes to refrigerant management: prescriptive and performance.

Prescriptive companies are business-as-usual companies. They are still stuck in silos, with no one besides facility managers and contractors thinking about HVAC/R.

On the other hand, performance companies have operations that guide decision-making in real-time and use a hybrid collection system that supplements traditional work order systems. It means that there is efficiency, visibility, and control across processes.

We encourage companies to strive toward the performance bucket. We see this as the best way to best manage facilities, reduce leaks, and ultimately help the planet by curbing fugitive emissions. If you’re not there yet, check out our refrigerant management software to start your journey.

In the meantime, if you need information for your ESG reporting, don’t rely on estimates. They’re unreliable, inaccurate, and based on faulty assumptions. Turn to our factor for better, more accurate information. Get in touch with us today to learn more about the factor and how you can use it.

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And if you want to learn more about estimating and fugitive emissions, be sure to register for our open mic next week on March 3.

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