By Jill Abelson
The impact of refrigerants on climate continues to draw global attention from media, scientists, policy makers, environmental groups and companies searching for sustainable solutions. Fluorocarbon refrigerants are powerful greenhouse gases, up to 11,000 times more potent compared to carbon dioxide (CO2) on a per molecule basis. During business as usual, 99 percent of these chemicals eventually leak into the atmosphere.
Since our recent posts on fridge recycling solutions and innovations in commercial chilling at a university campus, refrigerants have stayed in the news. Many businesses are phasing out their use of HCFC and HFC refrigerants, and a global phase-down of production of HFCs appears to be on the horizon, with the U.S. and China reaching a historic agreement this past summer.
Refrigerants are important in nearly every sector of the economy, but the current approach to refrigerant management has met with several challenges. These chemicals are typically treated as consumables, with accidental venting, leaks during equipment operations and servicing, losses at equipment end-of-life, combined with information gaps that result in atmospheric emissions and economic/operational inefficiencies. Businesses are increasingly interested in tracking and minimizing refrigerant emissions during equipment operations and at end-of-life.
This week’s post takes a behind-the-scenes look at exemplary refrigerant management among supermarkets, examining drivers for innovation and highlighting best practices and change. We will profile one leading company, and highlight other innovations in the form of engineering solutions, reconfiguration of refrigerant loops, refrigerant management and use of substitutes with no or very low global warming potential. Cool and refreshing, indeed.
As any foodie knows, supermarkets and food retail are big business. The industry boasts 3.4 million employees. The U.S. has more than 37,000 supermarkets with sales in 2012 in excess of $600 billion annually, according to the Food Marketing Institute.
What you don’t see -- hiding behind the refrigerator and freezer display cases in supermarkets keeping food cool -- is a vast and complex network comprised of refrigerant piping, valves, loops, coils, compressors, evaporators, condensers, receivers and thousands of other components. There are over ten miles of refrigerant piping in the average store. Sources of refrigerant leaks include display cases themselves, refrigerant piping and joints, and the components that keep the network running to keep food cool.
Stores constructed before 2010 typically use R-22, also known as HCFC-22, an ozone-depleting greenhouse gas currently slated for production phase-out in 2020 under the Montreal Protocol. Systems installed in newer stores in the U.S. typically use HFCs, carrying no ozone depleting impacts, but very high global warming impacts. The total refrigerant charge circulating around a typical store is about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of gas.
A significant environmental challenge facing the supermarket industry has been refrigerant leakages from traditional equipment. The average leak rate from a standard system is an astonishing 25 percent, with the typical store losing about 1,000 pounds of refrigerant each year. These routine losses add up to both high recharge costs and significant environmental impact, with leaks totaling millions of pounds each year. Multiply 1,000 pounds of refrigerant gases by their global warming potential – about 4,000 that of carbon dioxide – and the resulting climate change impact is more than a store’s electricity use for a whole year.
Spurred on by these environmental and economic drivers and aging infrastructure – supermarkets -- along with equipment and chemical manufacturers, have been developing a broad array of innovative technologies and practices to reduce the carbon footprints of these refrigeration systems and their refrigerant inventories.
Ambitious store certification levels – silver, gold and platinum – are the heart of GreenChill’s program. To achieve certifications levels, stores must use environmentally friendly refrigerants, reduce the amount of refrigerant they use, and make significant reductions in leak rates. All supermarkets in the program make a pledge to make yearly, corporate-wide reductions in their refrigerant leaks.
With these clearly defined goals, GreenChill has transformed the industry. Eight thousand supermarkets now partner with the program. In a short period of time, the program has steadily moved the industry from “heavy charge” systems into new ones with lower leak rates.
Perhaps one of the best examples honoring the GreenChill mission is Weis Markets, based in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. This award-winning regional chain has demonstrated that not just “the big guys” are sustainability leaders in their sector, committing to new practices and technologies across the board.
Four Weis stores meet GreenChill gold certifications, and three have achieved silver certification, including one innovative remodel project in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Weis is leading the industry in phasing out of their R-22 systems. They recently worked with EOS Climate to leverage carbon markets to retire their CFC inventory. They have also created an incentive program rewarding service technicians for achieving ambitious environmental goals. This strategy has paid off, with a vast array of GreenChill awards, achievement of their corporate-wide emissions reductions goals, and recognition of their sustainability leadership by the leading trade publication, Supermarket News. Sustainably lower refrigerant charges have resulted in operational savings allowing innovation and equipment upgrades.
Weis is one example of how the supermarket industry is transforming the way refrigerants are used and managed, but there are many other pioneers. Whole Foods, Hannaford Bros., Target, Sprouts, Publix, and equipment manufacturers and service contractors such as Hill Phoenix, Hussmann and Source Refrigeration -- to name just a few -- are building the very coolest stores of the future.
As just one example, Hannaford Bros. supermarkets recently opened its first U.S. store with all natural refrigeration – one of the few GreenChill platinum certified stores in the country. The new system is expected to cut the store's carbon footprint by 3.4 million pounds of CO2 equivalent a year. Whole Foods Market is opening a similar store with all natural refrigeration in Brooklyn, N.Y. later this year, which will give them their second GreenChill platinum certified store. Other companies like Sprouts and Target have installed low-leak, lower GWP systems - manufactured by Hill Phoenix and Hussman - that are not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions but are also saving money.
These more advanced systems, combined with improved refrigerant management at the facility level and throughout the value chain, are helping to transform the supermarket industry.
From freezer case doors to environmentally-friendly refrigerants chilling behind the scenes, your frozen pizza has never looked so tasty.
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