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Natural refrigeration reaches toward a tipping point

Green refrigeration technology like carbon dioxide is catching on with retailers

That bag of jumbo frozen shrimp in your freezer promises between 12 and 15 individual crustaceans. But when a customer gets the bag home and cuts open the seal, the inside turns out to be a congealed, jagged mass that practically requires a blowtorch to separate.

Frozen shrimp (or peas) seldom get mentioned among the benefits of natural refrigeration. Instead, healthier lungs for Mother Earth and reduced costs for retailers are usually cited. For Simon Bérubé, however, better shrimp is a welcome byproduct.

A former Sobeys man, Bérubé is now vice-president of strategic development at Carnot, a Montreal-based refrigeration maker. He’s convinced that the quality of food preservation using natural refrigerants, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), is markedly superior to that of existing systems using R-22 and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

“Most of the time with the shrimp, they’re jam-packed with snow and ice when you take them out ,” says Bérubé. With the CO2 you won’t see that. The shrimp will be as pink, or blue-ish green if they are uncooked, as they’re supposed to be.”

For the better part of the last century, grocery freezers have relied on a variety of Freon-type gases to keep foods frozen. Alas, most of these have had a propensity to wreck the planet. R-22, for instance, punches holes in the ozone layer.

Among the most popular today are HFC gases. Normally these work just fine. But when HFCs leak from supermarket pipes (which some estimate happens often enough to be a worry), they dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to the world’s global warming woes.

The British grocery chain Tesco estimates that HFC leakage now accounts for 13% of its total carbon footprint, about the equivalent of all the retailer’s delivery truck emissions each year.

Natural-refrigeration systems have two advantages, say proponents. One, the gases leak less often, and because of that, operating costs for retailers go down. Two, when leaks do occur, the detrimental impact to the environment is much less than leaks of R-22 or HFC gases. A simple measure: 2,000 pounds of leaked CO2 has the same global-warming affect of just one pound of HFCs.

With grocery chains looking to cut their carbon footprint and reduce costs, there has been a notable thawing of North American attitudes toward natural refrigeration. Some even believe a tipping point is on the horizon and that natural refrigeration is about to become the de facto method to keep supermarket freezers cold.

In May, Shecco, a market development firm specializing in climate friendly technologies, examined the potential of the so-called “natural five” refrigerants: ammonia, CO2, hydrocarbons, water and air. In a report, it noted a “significant change” occurring within the North American cold chain.

Shecco says more than 125 North American supermarkets have installed either secondary, cascade or transcritical systems that use CO2 either partly or completely. U.S. supermarkets began making “significant investments” in CO2 refrigeration after the Environmental Protection Agency approved its use in food retail refrigeration and cold storage warehouses, in 2009.

CO2 use in transcritical systems is rapidly becoming an established practice in Canada, too. According to Shecco, Canada now has the second most CO2 transcritical stores outside of Europe. “The people that are not jumping into it are losing opportunities,” says Bérubé. “The payback is almost instant.”

Canada has actually become something of a “cold bed” for natural refrigeration technology, a point highlighted recently by Harrison Horning, director of equipment purchasing at Delhaize America.

Horning was working on the installation of a CO2 refrigeration system at one of Delhaize’s Hannaford Supermarkets in Maine when his team discovered a lack of spare parts for the system in the U.S. “We grabbed our passports and drove to Canada to get parts,” Horning told Supermarket News.

Sobeys alone has already installed 36 transcritical systems, much of its work in the space pioneered by Bérubé when he was an engineer with the company. Bérubé credits Sobeys with lending its full support to his work in the area.

“I had very good support from the top management in understanding what we were doing,” he says.

Sobeys’ rival Loblaw, meanwhile, also installed a transcritical system at its Maple Leaf Gardens store, in Toronto. It uses reclaimed energy from the refrigeration system to heat its underground parking garage.

Both chains have publicly stated their intention to vigorously pursue natural refrigeration as an alternative to their existing systems. In its 2012 corporate social responsibility report, Loblaw Corporation announced plans to pilot what it called the “next generation” in CO2 refrigeration in 2013, using CO2 as the sole refrigerant.

Sobeys has also pledged a “natural refrigerant commitment.” It wants natural refrigeration systems to be installed in all of its new full-service stores. It is currently using CO2 in both low- and medium-temperature refrigeration applications.

The results are encouraging. CO2 systems used by Sobeys cost 10% less to install than HFC ones. They use 15% less energy, reduce building heating costs 75% while simultaneously lowering maintenance costs by as much as 50%, according to the Shecco report. They also enable better temperature control, which Sobeys says allows for more “consistent quality” of displayed products.

Thanks to grocers such as Sobeys, Quebec boasts 53 of the country’s 74 CO2 supermarkets (a combination of secondary, cascade and transcritical installations). Alberta has 11 CO2 supermarkets; Ontario four.

Bérubé says natural refrigeration is picking up converts all the time. He boldly predicts that all supermarkets will use some form of natural refrigeration within five years.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he says.

Warren Heeley, president of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada, a national trade association based in Mississauga, Ont., shares Bérubé’s enthusiasm for natural refrigeration, but believes he’s being “overoptimistic” about its adoption.

The cost of retrofitting the country’s supermarkets makes an industry-wide conversion within five years unlikely, Heeley says.

Some grocers have grumbled that it’s difficult to find contractors familiar enough with CO2 systems to install them on time and on budget. “A mass move would be difficult for the supermarket industry simply because they’ve got so much building stock out there,” says Heeley. “It’s a fairly significant change.”

Still, faster adoption of natural refrigeration by leading chains is increasing awareness and interest in the technology, he says.

“What’s happened now is that there is this push to look at alternate refrigerants CO2 is now higher on the totem pole for things that are good options,” says Heeley. “There are more system suppliers in the marketplace, so that option is more readily available to a supermarket that wants to go in that direction.”

For inspiration, Canadian grocers need only look to Europe, where natural refrigeration systems are already widespread. As of 2011, more than 1,300 supermarkets were using transcritical-only CO2 systems. The French retailer Carrefour, in particular, has emerged as one of the continent’s most avid supporters.

As part of its ongoing green strategy, approximately 70 of its stores currently use natural refrigeration systems. While that represents a fraction of its more than 9,990 stores in Europe, Latin America and Asia, a spokesperson for the Lyon-based company calls it an “important contributor” to the company’s ongoing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

Europe’s sweep toward natural refrigeration hasn’t come without problems, of course. In June, Tesco was forced to evacuate one of its CO2 refrigerated stores in Newbury, England, after pipes leaked. That followed a December 2010 leak at a Tesco Extra outside Salford in which several people suffered minor injuries.

Tesco officials were quick to point out the CO2 systems were “first generation” and were subsequently replaced with ones that employ better joint technology.

Indeed, such leaks are “teething problems,” according to Cedric Sloan, director general of the Federation of Environmental Trade Associations in the U.K. “The industry is under relentless pressure from the government and others to adopt this technology,” he told The Grocer magazine, in June.

There appears to be no stopping natural refrigeration’s spread across Europe. Carrefour has pledged to stop using HFCs in all new cooling-equipment installations by 2015.

It claims a 24.9% reduction in CO2 emissions linked to refrigerant and energy consumption by stores in France, Spain, Belgium and Italy compared to 2009 levels (its goal is a 40% reduction by 2020).

At the same time, it has seen a 24.6% decrease in energy consumption in kWh/sq. m. of sales area since 2004. Refrigeration comprises approximately 35% of Carrefour’s €500 million per year in energy expenditure, with refrigerants accounting for about 42% of the company’s carbon footprint.

Natural refrigeration is also making inroads in Asia and Latin America. There are more than 100 CO2 stores in Japan, for example. Retailer Aeon has publicly stated that it is committed to converting its 3,500 existing stores to natural refrigerants.

Elsewhere, Tesco has installed three CO2 transcritical systems in stores in China and another in Thailand.

There has been no official word on its impact on frozen shrimp.

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