What the F-gas? What fluorinated gases mean for FoCo

Noah Pasley

As Rams ramp up to celebrate their first virtual Earth Day, students do not have to look much further than Fort Collins to see a key issue — greenhouse gases. That’s because a current movement facing the City has its eye on how Fort Collins reports its fluorinated gas emissions, also known as F-gases.

Scott Denning, science advisor for the Fort Collins Sustainability Group and atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University, said that many fluorinated gases are mostly banned now because they were reacting in the upper atmosphere and damaging the ozone layer. But one of the gases people are worried about now is sulfur hexafluoride or SF6, Denning said.

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SF6 is primarily used as an insulator by high-tech manufacturing industries, but the amount in the atmosphere is very small, Denning said.

“So it’s not like there’s a lot of this stuff out there, but every molecule of SF6 is some God awful thousands of times better at absorbing outgoing heat than CO2 is, so it doesn’t take very much to change the climate,” Denning said.

SF6 is also long-lived comparing it to methane, which is another powerful greenhouse gas that only lasts for about 10 years, Denning said. Gases like CO2 and SF6, however, can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The issue for Fort Collins is that the City has taken a “very aggressive policy stance” toward limiting CO2 emissions, and many residents are asking the City to look at F-gases, Denning said. Fort Collins has a pretty significant high-tech manufacturing industry, with big producers like Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Broadcom.

Denning said there’s no reason for F-gases like SF6 to escape into the air. For one, it is expensive to manufacture, and it only enters the atmosphere when it leaks out of high-tech equipment.

“It’s not like a byproduct, like CO2 is, of something useful,” Denning said. “SF6 is a valuable commodity … so the important thing is to plug the leaks, keep the stuff in the circuitry where it’s supposed to be.”

Fort Collins, as part of the Climate Action Plan, measures its current approximate emissions in comparison to those in 2005. Using this baseline, the City can understand how its current emissions compare to its estimated emissions 15 years ago. But Broadcom’s emissions only date back to 2011, causing difficulty in reporting those emissions in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory, said Kevin Cross, a founding member of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group.

Using a linear extrapolation back to 2005, Cross said Broadcom’s Industrial Processes and Product Use emissions, which are mostly composed of F-gases, peaked in 2016 at 308,835 metric tons, about 14% of the city’s baseline emissions.

“Since 2016, Broadcom’s emissions have been going down; they’ve installed some equipment to capture those F-gases instead of releasing them into the environment,” Cross said, adding that those emissions are down to about 8% of the baseline according to the extrapolation.

The importance to some residents of getting IPPU emissions counted in the GHG Inventory is that the City currently reports that its greenhouse gas emissions are down 14% from the 2005 baseline. However, according to the FCSG Statement on 2018 Fort Collins Climate Action Plan Results, if Broadcom’s F-gas emissions were counted in the GHG Inventory, the 2018 greenhouse gas emissions would be only 8% lower than 2005 levels.

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Mayor Wade Troxell said that the IPPU emissions are monitored and counted at the state level but he doesn’t want to “change the goalpost” on how the City reports its GHG Inventory. Troxell also said he wouldn’t mind if there’s an addendum or an “asterisk” that also becomes a part of the greenhouse gas reporting, but he doesn’t want to “fundamentally change what we’ve been doing for the last 15 years.”

Another reason Troxell does not want to alter the plan is that it is based on standards currently used in cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, and Melbourne, Australia. The goals the City has adopted are also among the most aggressive in the world, Troxell said.

“I don’t think we need to heavily modify our climate action plan in order to report something that’s already being reported and reduced accordingly,” Troxell said. “I don’t see the problem and I think some of the things being requested … make it more confusing and less goal-directed.”

The City of Fort Collins is holding a 5-day virtual Earth Day celebration organized by the Sustainable Living Association available at the SLA’s Facebook. The celebration follows the City reporting that the community has doubled its household goal and beat its greenhouse gas reduction goal by an additional 85%.

Noah Pasley can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @PasleyNoah.