Keeping cool: Supermarkets reduce emissions from refrigerators

Keeping cool: Supermarkets reduce emissions from refrigerators

Thanks to a government partnership, some of the nation's largest supermarket owners have been taking a bite out of the millions of pounds of refrigerant that leak into the air each year.

Direct expansion systems, which are used by 70 percent of food retail stores, often leak more than 20 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of refrigerant they use, on average, per year. That leakage has significant environmental impacts considering that the most common refrigerants are made of ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorcarbons (HFC), meaning they contain harmful greenhouse gases.

Five years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency created the GreenChill partnership to help solve the problem. It works with food retailers to help them transition to greener refrigerants and less-leaky refrigeration systems, and offers certification -- and awards -- for individual stores and corporate chains alike.

So far, its GreenChill program includes 54 food retailers with a total of 8,000 stores, representing about 20 percent of the supermarket industry, according to Cindy Newberg, head of the alternatives and emissions-reduction branch of the EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division.

Regional chain stores make up most of the partners, but some independent stores – as well as a couple of large companies, such as Target, also have joined. Among its certified partners, refrigeration leakage averages less than 10 percent, compared to much higher levels pre-certification, Newberg says.

How to get certified

When retailers express interest in joining GreenChill, the EPA helps stores sift through options, using information shared from other stores, as well as an extensive GreenChill website and webinars.

Newberg stresses that the agency doesn't recommend specific refrigerant fluids or cooling systems, but educates partners on the variety of fluids and technologies available.

Obtaining store certification can take as little as one week. The EPA mainly looks at the system design and the fluids it uses.

But the certification process requires an in-depth knowledge of refrigeration system application and design, according to Paul Anderson, who oversees the program at Target. The large retail chain, which debuted a grocery section in many of its stores in 2010, says that all 1,763 of its stores are part of the GreenChill program.

Anderson suggests a seven-step process to obtain certification: understanding the EPA's criteria, verifying that it is met, selecting the right technology, making a financial commitment, designing and executing a solution, overseeing installation and verifying its operation.

While Target already met the requirements to be a GreenChill partner, it had to modify its refrigeration-equipment design to meet the store certification criteria, Anderson says.

   Photo of a supermarket by Adisa via Shutterstock.

For SuperValu Inc., Albertsons' parent company and the third-largest U.S. food retailer after Krogers and Safeway, the process to become GreenChill certified "was relatively simple," according to Michael Siemienas. "We’ve worked closely with the Department of Energy over the past several years, testing many potential green solutions in our stores."

SuperValu recently installed new refrigerant technology in its Albertsons store in Carpinteria, Calif., as part of an effort to pilot energy-efficient technologies to roll out chain-wide.

Challenges remain

But if certification is fairly quick and simple, why has the majority of the grocery industry ignored the GreenChill option? Given that refrigeration represents the bulk of energy consumed at food stores, you might think that reducing leakage -- and related costs – there would be a priority.

Well, while the industry has worked hard to advance new technologies and refrigerants, Anderson says, in some cases, the new systems actually end up consuming more energy than traditional systems, even if they emit fewer HFCs.

"Depending on the application, the new refrigerants and refrigeration systems on the market today consume more energy than a well maintained traditional refrigeration system," Anderson says, adding that  Target has devoted significant resources to study the impacts of the new systems.

And that's only one of a number of performance factors that need to be taken into account before making a decision to change designs, he adds. Aside from the energy requirements, there are the maintenance and repair costs, the system reliability (or uptime) and the carbon footprints to consider, according to Target. 

Then, of course, there's the capital investment required to make the switch.

"Cost is a deterrent -- the industry has razor thin margins as it is -- but given [that] energy is one of the major operating costs, stores are evaluating options to cut down on energy," said Dave Heylen, a spokesman for the California Grocer's Association. "It's also that in this economy, while the industry would like to cut down on emissions, investing in it right now may be hard for some."

Still, Newberg says, 20 percent uptake is good considering that the program has only been out for about five years.