Environmental Protection

EPA's GreenChill Program Works to Revolutionize Supermarket Refrigeration

Supermarkets are among the most energy-intensive buildings around. According to a paper from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, an average supermarket consumes 1 million to 1.5 million kWh yearly. The average home, by comparison, uses 11,040 kWh.

At least half of this energy use comes from refrigeration. And this isn’t its only environmental pitfall: Despite the replacement of Freon with safer chemicals as a result of the Montreal Protocol’s phase-out of CFCs, refrigerant leaks still harm the ozone layer.

EPA has been working with supermarkets to implement the Montreal protocol as well as the Clean Air Act since the laws’ inceptions, and in its dealings with refrigeration engineers, it saw that, while supermarket refrigeration had a big problem, there was a wealth of technology available to deal with the issues. And several supermarket companies agreed, said Keilly Witman, EPA’s GreenChill program manager.

There was a lack of recognition for efforts to eliminate refrigerant emissions, Witman said. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program has no requirements for refrigerant emissions, and companies said they would be eager to work to reduce emissions goals if they would get recognition for it.

“There were indications from different supermarket companies that they would appreciate a voluntary partnership and assistance to voluntary go above and beyond and do a better job,” Witman said. “Customers want to do business with companies that share their environmental values. As a result of that, we’ve seen increased attention to environmental issues on the corporate side.”

And so EPA created the GreenChill program, which works with corporate supermarket partners to set goals to reduce their refrigerant emissions annually. Those companies that achieve their goals get recognized at the end of the year.

A year later, in 2009, the program expanded to include certification awards for individual stores. “That came as a result of our realization that the only way to achieve these emissions goals corporatewide was through an awful lot of hard work on the individual store level,” Witman said. “We wanted to provide an incentive to individual stores to invest in the technology.”

These individual certifications adopted the nomenclature of the LEED program, designating stores silver, gold and platinum. The certification is difficult to achieve, Witman said, and only 60 of the nation’s 35,000 grocery stores have earned it. Only three have achieved the top certification of platinum.

“Meeting the standards doesn’t just happen by accident,” Witman said. “In order to get your refrigerant charge size down where it needs to be, you have to specifically design your store to meet the specifications.”

Alternate Technologies

The tactics companies are taking to reduce refrigeration emissions range from procedural changes to investing in entire new systems. Some stores with fewer resources are emphasizing leak prevention by instituting more-rigorous leak checks to ensure their refrigerants are contained.

In new stores, or in stores that take the momentous step of replacing the entire refrigeration systems, newer technologies and cooling methods are making emissions-reduction easier.

“Some of the engineers have told me that more has changed in refrigeration technology in the past three years than in past three decades,” Witmer said. “Stores are installing systems now that didn’t even exist when GreenChill was launched.”

Also garnering some interest are natural refrigerant systems that use carbon dioxide or ammonia. While ammonia is in widespread use in other industries, the health hazards, not to mention its sharp smell, had caused it to fall out of favor with supermarkets. However, some of the new technologies available are making it easier for supermarkets use Ammonia safely. Indeed, according to OSHA, 25 states and Puerto Rico have ammonia refrigerant regulations in place. Carbon dioxide has been in use as a refrigerant for at least a hundred years, and it is 4,000 times less harmful to climate than the chemicals currently in use, though it may be less efficient. Overall, Witmer points out that one of the major advantages of natural refrigerants is that they take companies entirely out of EPA refrigerant regulations, saving the headaches associated with continuous compliance.

Target, GreenChill’s newest partner, is investigating using a refrigerant called R134a at 11 of its stores, said Jena Reck, a public relations representative from Target. “The reason for joining the GreenChill program this year is because of Target’s expanded fresh food remodel program,” she said. “Through this program, Target has been rapidly expanding our fresh food presence and adding refrigeration to our general merchandise stores.”

Big vs. Small

Depending on their size, some stores have a harder time doing this. As every store has an individually designed refrigeration system, the costs of using the more environmentally friendly systems can vary. Ften However, Witman said that, on average, the “greener” equipment costs about 20 percent more. As the systems are designed with better leak prevention, though, they require less maintenance, and can make up the cost difference in two to three years.

These systems can also be a lifesaver for stores located far from urban centers, where it can be difficult to find a qualified repairman. The delays involved in having a serviceman travel out could mean the loss of a store’s entire inventory.

But for smaller companies with fewer stores, the initial capital outlay to purchase a greener system can be prohibitive because of the high initial cost of refrigeration systems. Even if it is going to cost les s over three years, it could be impossible for the company to find the spare cash to put down in the first place.

Bigger corporations such as Target can invest more of other types of resources to the program as well, devoting, for instance, an entire corporate position to coordinating and conducting refrigeration-efficiency activities. They also have the extra cash to spend on sophisticated data-management systems.

“Sophisticated management systems pay off in that you want to be sure that you’re in compliance with all the regulations, because one fine can offset the cost of those entire systems,” Witmer said. To help level the playing field, Witner said EPA holds monthly roundtable discussions limited to GreenChill partners on topics that many companies are facing in trying to reduce their emissions. This allows refrigeration engineers from bigger companies to share their experiences with different techniques and processes with engineers from smaller companies. Witman said the discussions have been a hit.

“I get phone calls after the roundtable discussions that say, ‘Just that one-hour-long session made it worth it to join the partnership,” she said. “Why not let the big guys go out there and test all that technology and then benefit from the fact that they’ve done all of that testing and have come to conclusions about what’s the best?”

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