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Why supermarkets are key to a cooler climate

Refrigeration management is an urgent need, and a potent opportunity.


After a wild weather year across the nation, wildfire season is at bay and winter weather games are in play. In this reduced heat of the moment, and with relatively cool heads (until the next bombogenesis), it’s a good time to consider the natural and man-made temperature regulators that are key to keeping our planet livable, our food preserved and our bodies hovering at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

I’m talkin’ ‘bout refrigeration.

As the earth’s natural refrigerating heat shield vanishes with accelerated glacier melts — causing more accelerated glacier melting — solutions for a cooler atmosphere must aggressively include slowing this perilous process

But this is only one of the vicious cycles at play. For the hotter the planet becomes, the more man-made cooling we need for our bodies and our food systems. And the more cooling we deploy with the power of fossil fuels, the more greenhouse gases (GHGs) we generate — and the hotter the planet becomes. 

The condition of our cooling systems

The energy it takes to run cooling machines needs to be managed efficiently and generated renewably. GreenBiz Editorial Director Heather Clancy recently reviewed the state of the art of energy productivity as it applies to cooling and refrigeration. The demand from air conditioning alone could triple by 2050, so a key focus for some is on the cooling facilities used by people. At the same time, others are focused on improving cold-chain logistics with artificial intelligence and the internet of things — smartly allowing the thermal properties of super-cold food to, well, keep food cold.

Roughly 60 percent of hydrofluorocarbon emissions are a result of leaks from refrigeration and air conditioning, and commercial refrigeration contributes more than any other source.

But beyond the need to manage the energy draw required to refrigerate a hotter world, we also must draw attention to the refrigerants themselves. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — the chemicals most commonly used as coolants — have a GHG potential typically 2,000 to 4,000 times that of carbon dioxide. The super-danger of these and other fugitive super pollutants was spotlighted during last year’s Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS). Indeed, global temperatures could rise even faster than anticipated, say experts, unless aggressive action is taken.

Which is why among the many revealing research findings of Project Drawdown, refrigerant management rose to the top as the No. 1 climate solution. As such, it represents both an urgent need and a promisingly potent opportunity. This opportunity has two parts.

Preventing the great escape

According to Project Drawdown, "Over 30 years, containing 87 percent of refrigerants likely to be released could avoid emissions equivalent to 89.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide." To that end, the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC) — a member-based nonprofit formed by the supermarket community — believes that HFC refrigerants should be the most-discussed climate issue for its sector.

Morgan Smith, manager of programs and operations for NASRC, said roughly 60 percent of HFC emissions are a result of leaks from refrigeration and air conditioning, and that commercial refrigeration contributes more HFC emissions than any other source. Supermarket refrigeration systems, in particular, "are connected by miles of piping and countless joints, making them prone to high leak rates — about 25 percent of its total refrigerant load."

Because of this, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has put in place a Refrigerant Management Program (RMP) that requires relevant facilities to "conduct and report periodic leak inspections, promptly repair leaks; and keep service records on site."

supermarket refrigerator

Drawing upon nature

The other key opportunity for refrigerant management is to replace super-polluting refrigerants with their natural counterparts. As explained by NASRC, "Natural refrigerants have orders of magnitude less impact on the climate than traditional fluorocarbon refrigerants and are considered the ‘future-proof’ refrigerant options for supermarkets."

Project Drawdown’s research is encouraging on this point: "Phasing out HFCs could avoid additional emissions equivalent to 25 to 78 gigatons of carbon dioxide."

CARB has proposed new regulations that radically will reduce the global warming potential of refrigerants allowed in new commercial systems.

Perhaps ironically, the most cost-effective natural coolant is CO2 itself, which has been used successfully since the 19th century. Other climate-friendly alternatives to HFC refrigerants include ammonia and hydrocarbons.

Unfortunately, there is no drop-in solution for replacing coolants, and system retrofits are prohibitively expensive. The focus, therefore, is to activate this transition when new systems are being rolled out.

Overcoming barriers

New natural refrigerant systems don’t come cheap. While costs vary significantly, a supermarket manager can expect to face more than 25 percent higher costs to install these systems than their HFC counterparts. Meanwhile, in the supermarket sector, average profit margins of 1 percent prevail, which cannot readily absorb these upfront costs.

The NASRC, therefore, seeks to create the economies of scale that will be critical to bringing down the price point of new natural refrigerant systems. To achieve this, it is working directly with industry stakeholders to develop incentives that offset costs; advance codes and engineering standards; develop case studies and training resources; connect trained contractors with food retailers; and provide input to public policy.

For public policy is needed to help drive this essential change. The Kigali accord is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that aims to eliminate up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by phasing down HFCs globally. Although it is lacking a U.S. signature, its mission is being led domestically in California.

CARB has proposed new regulations that radically will reduce the global warming potential (GWP) of refrigerants allowed in new commercial systems; this eventually will affect all supermarkets in California. It also has authorized a financial incentive program to support the onboarding of these new systems beginning this year.

Other states have begun to follow California’s policy lead. Washington and Vermont have passed legislation and New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Delaware have announced intentions to regulate HFCs. The rest of the 24 states and territories involved in the U.S. Climate Alliance are expected to adopt HFC refrigerant regulations in the future.

Progress on the ground

Although expensive, commitments to roll out new cooling systems promise a strong payback. Global retailer Woolworths began to roll out new closed-door refrigeration in 2012, with great expectations. Reports Clancy, "the project should save up to $10 million over five to 10 years," according to The Climate Group’s EP100 update.

Meanwhile, in a case study from the new Accelerating America’s Pledge initiative, NASRC reported that several pilot projects — such as at Grocery Outlet stores in the western United States and Aldi supermarkets throughout the Northeast and Southern California — are documenting and reporting the energy performance of new systems.

"The results of these pilots can help other retailers make more informed economic decisions about the return on investment of various options and can provide contractor training opportunities, addressing a significant barrier of this relatively new technology," the organization wrote.

Everyone is a stakeholder

Hopefully, pilots will continue to roll out and case studies continue to roll in.

Hopefully too, each state soon will put into place the policies and provisions necessary to ensure that our nutritional needs and foodie fandoms can continue to be fed without pushing our GHG emissions over the edge.

For like the melting glaciers themselves, this refrigeration problem belongs to everyone. Although the burden is being born by supermarkets, its stakeholders include anyone who eats. 

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