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Natural selection

The Atmosphere natural refrigerants conference highlighted the sector’s rapid development and supply chain concerns. Andrew Gaved reports 

The Atmosphere Conference, now in its fourth year, has rapidly established itself as the annual meeting place of the natural refrigerants industry.

It can now probably legitimately describe itself as  an ‘industry’, thanks in no  small part to the ambition of supermarkets across Europe whose appetite for CO2  systems has created a high demand, particularly in transcritical systems.

RAC is media partner for what is now an influential event among technology specialists and policy-makers alike, as it has become abundantly clear that natural refrigerants will play a major role in the low-carbon future of refrigeration.

We believe as a magazine that a key role for us is to point people towards such solutions, while keeping a necessary perspective – ensuring that refrigerants are chosen for their practical feasibility and their energy efficiency as well as  their global warming potential, and emphasising the importance of containment across the existing estates.

Coming loud and clear from the succession of speakers from both sides of the supply chain at Atmosphere was a consistent set of messages.

Firstly, it is clear that natural solutions are now the definitive solution for many major end-users, who are spurred on by concerns over carbon reduction.

There is a feeling among European retailers in particular that they consider the technology to have proved itself now.

Secondly, this demand is set to be accelerated as customers take on board the HFC phase-down proposed in the F-Gas review – which was still in its draft form at the time of the conference but has now been published – see pages 4-5.

But thirdly, there are  concerns from the customer  side that the supply chain needs to work more closely together with them in order to really embed natural technology in  the industry.

This is particularly the case when it comes to sharing technical information and real-world data, and most significantly in terms of ensuring sufficient numbers of the workforce are trained to install and maintain the equipment in the future.


Institute of Refrigeration president Andy Pearson delivered the keynote speech  to the conference, bringing insight to the nature of technological innovation and  how it could apply to the development of refrigeration.

He introduced the concept of the ‘carrick,’ a cross between the carrot and the stick, as a way of getting the industry to adopt  new technology.

He said: “We need laws that encourage the right stuff and discourage wrongdoing. But the carbon effect should always be the guiding principle.”

At the same time, he believed that incentives are not always automatically the best solution.

“We should remember that forced innovation can still be a profit opportunity,” he noted.

“I am genuinely afraid of incentives, as it can lead to inappropriate behaviour.”

He also called for regulations for naturals that would not discourage their use. “There is  a need for consistent science-based regulations governing flammability, toxicity and burst pressure,” he said.

But he left delegates with a challenge: “Technically, refrigeration systems are the same as they were 30 years ago. Compare that to the rapid technical change in your car or  in your computer.”

Policy perspectives

Speakers from national agencies told Atmosphere delegates what their countries were doing and what their aims are regarding F-Gas regulation.

Katja Becken of UBA, the German Federal Environment Agency, said that Germany would be looking for increasing targets on refrigeration energy use, but that at the same time it would take a tough line on the use of HFCs – perhaps a tougher line than the EU.

Ms Becker said: “Energy efficiency will become even more important. So far I haven’t seen any convincing data to suggest that we shouldn’t use alternative refrigerants on energy efficiency grounds.”

She said that the country had just launched an 18-month strategy to enhance the use of hydrocarbons in refrigeration.

Ms Becker added that if, following assessment, the German authorities felt the F-Gas proposals hadn’t gone  far enough, they would consult on the prospect of a national  tax on HFCs.

A glimpse of a natural refrigerants future was offered by Mikkel Sorensen of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, whose country banned the use of HFCs in 2005.

Mr Sorensen’s message was that “it can be done, if there is good co-operation between industry, government and science”. He continued: “In Denmark we have achieved a similar reduction in HFC consumption – two-thirds – as that being proposed by the EU.”

He said that among the lessons learned was that policy-makers could be  confident that the alternatives were available.

“You’d be surprised how far the industry can go if it is given the right goals. But everyone needs to work together and not try to put the clock back.”

Mr Sorensen also had a message for end-users on the investment cost of natural solutions. “Don’t focus so much on the individual price you will have to pay,” he urged.

“There are huge savings to be made on the maintenance costs and on higher efficiency.”

Another strict regime has been imposed by Switzerland – a country outside of the aegis of the EU – where the environment authorities have just authorised a range of bans on certain equipment using HFCs.

Blaise Honisberger of the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment said that a regime of mandatory maintenance and registration for HFC equipment with charge sizes over 3 kg had effectively driven the supermarket industry towards the use of carbon dioxide.

The stringent regime recently put in place bans HFCs in commercial refrigeration of  more than 40 kW, freezers over 30 kW and VRFs above 80 kW cooling capacity.

Alex Pachai of Johnson controls, a man who can boast greater experience than most when it comes to natural refrigerants, had some words of caution for the crowd about the barriers to implementing the  new technology.

He warned that logistics and lack of trained personnel at all levels could be a barrier.

“Wrong understanding of the payback can be a problem, as can risk averse attitudes, particularly from consultants,” he said. “They often stick to what they know.”

Supermarket experience

Along with the views of policy-makers, perhaps the most significant message for the industry to take on board came from the assembled panel of supermarket end-users, who shared their experience of installation of natural refrigerant systems across a range of European countries.

The consistent message was that retailers are all in the midst of ambitious carbon-cutting programmes, that they believe the technology is achievable and that the investment premium – if a premium exists at all – is worthwhile for the carbon reduction achieved.

However, equally consistent was the concern from these major end-users that the refrigeration industry needs equally to accelerate its work in order to keep up with the demand for skills and with technology availability.

This urgency for the industry to step up was succinctly summed up by the panel’s chair Bob Arthur, formerly Marks and Spencer refrigeration manager and now working as  a consultant.

“The challenge for the supply chain is that the retailers’ role is to sell food, not to develop refrigeration,” he said.

Philippe Heymans of the Delhaize Group, which boasts 3,400 stores across three continents, reported that the group was ahead of schedule on its plan to reduce CO2 emissions per square metre by 20 per cent by 2020.

The company has also declared as a group that it will phase out HFCs in new stores from 2015.

With carbon dioxide cascade systems now standard practice for its Belgian and Luxembourg stores, Mr Heymans said that Delhaize is now “committed to increasing the number of natural refrigeration systems as long as they are cost-effective”.

To get to the point where systems are cost-neutral or better to the HFC equivalent, he said, they need to enhance the lifecycle costs through the use  of technology such as heat reclaim and hot gas defrost.

However, Mr Heymans stressed that there was still insufficient knowledge about the new technology and that supply chains should do more to share the know-how.

Emma Coles of the Dutch-owned Ahold Group said her company had plans for even more rapid reduction, with a strategy for 20 per cent CO2e reduction by 2015.

The company differs from some retailers in its treatment  of the “lifecycle climate performance”, including manufacture and recycling.

Ahold is not averse to trialling other new refrigerants, however, and has a system running with CO2 in cascade with the HFO blend XP10 in  the Netherlands.

Swiss ambition

Co-op Switzerland’s George Weinhofer has one of the more ambitious natural refrigeration programmes among European retailers, driven in no small part by the Swiss bans on HFC limits (see page 17), which makes it more cost-effective to install CO2 than alternatives. Thanks to this and a history of experience with CO2 which dates back to 2003, transcritical CO2 has been standard for both new stores and refurbishments since 2010.

Co-op’s experience with carbon dioxide has provided some interesting results.

Firstly, of the 160 stores (a fifth of the company’s food store estate) currently running on transcritical CO2, he reported that “we have had no problems or incidents so far.”.

Secondly, not only is it cheaper to install CO2 because of the Swiss ban on HFC systems above 80 kW but, he claimed, the transcritical setup had so far delivered 30 per cent less energy per linear metre than an equivalent HFC system.

The company has set itself one of the stiffest targets of all the retailers: to be HFC free by 2025 – at which point, Mr Weinhofer said, CO2 will be the sole refrigerant in-store.

Knut Lutnaes of Co-op Norway described a similar commitment to energy reduction and natural refrigeration.

Mr Lutnaes represents a collective of 1,000 independent stores in 110 local co-operatives in the region, which set out to slash energy use by 38 million kWh over the period from 2007 to 2011.

It achieved this principally by putting doors on cabinets as standard, switching to LED lighting and by installing transcritical CO2 systems, which it now has in 40 stores, and is now the national standard for new and refurbished stores.

He agreed that it was also now cheaper for him to invest in CO2 than in HFCs.

Flushed with this success, the group now intends to spend €80 million in the next five years to bring the energy consumption down by a further 120 million kWh, setting a new bar for corporate ambition.

Mr Lutnaes said that to achieve this will require improvements in energy efficiency, via EC fans and  the like, integration of refrigeration with the HVAC  and investigation of new technology such as CO2 integrated display cabinets.

But he was also forthright about the hurdles facing the industry. “I don’t feel the environmental appreciation of natural refrigerants is enough, both politically and economically,” he said.

“And at the same time we need more standardised solutions, not tailor-made equipment, because this will serve to bring the price down  for customers.”

He ended with a challenge for the supply chain. “Retailers will increasingly rely on external services for our maintenance and monitoring and for reducing our energy costs,” he suggested.

“I want suppliers to give us energy guarantees as well as reliability. That would be a huge step forward.”

Domestic view

These carbon achievements were put into some perspective by John Skelton of Sainsbury’s, who hasn’t suffered the HFC restrictions of his counterparts but hasn’t benefited from cheaper CO2 prices.

“The introduction of CO2 for us has been more costly than other options, but we believe it is future-proof,” he said.

“We pursued CO2 partly because we feel that an HFC tax will be introduced at some time in the future and because we know that there will be further restrictions on the use of F-Gases.

“We now have 137 stores running on CO2. I don’t think that transcritical CO2 is the ‘ultimate’ solution, I think that there will be different solutions required for different formats.”

Sainsbury’s has ambitious targets of its own: to reduce carbon by 30 per cent absolute by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2050, and Mr Skelton reiterated that this will put a lot of pressure on the supply base.

“There has been a lot of technology introduced rapidly and the challenge is maintaining these systems over the next 10-15 years,” he said.

“And how do we continue to deliver best practice in installation – in the supply base, in logistics and in competence?

“CO2 should be just another refrigerant, but it can be confusing. The cases are the same as before, the coldrooms are the same, but the packs are different. I am hoping that we get a step change in terms of availability as well – overall a better refrigeration job.”

Having challenged the supply chain, the themes were well bookended by Ms Coles of Ahold. “I guess it would be useful for us as retailers to be more transparent about where  we are too,” she conceded.

The EC ambition

EU climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard told delegates that there was a clear prerogative to making regulatory changes for refrigerants, as the cost of climate change was increasing. “The consequences of Hurricane Sandy will cost 20, 30, 40 billion dollars,” she said.

“When people say that it is expensive to make changes, it is clear the cost of continuing business as usual is even higher. The longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.”

Ms Hedegaard said the EC wanted to see all greenhouse gases reduced and therefore F-Gases needed to contribute to the overall reduction. The EC is looking for a two-thirds cut in F-Gases by 2020 in the F-Gas Review, but she stressed that the efforts need to extend beyond the European Union.

“We need to act quickly at an international level,” she said.

“It is extremely important we get international agreement for F-Gas reduction and [the meeting of Montreal Protocol parties in] Geneva is the place to promote a global phasedown.”

In the short term, Ms Hedegaard said that the EU would call for urgent action on HFCs in the next UN meeting in Doha. “How can we add to our ambition in the short term?” she asked. “We need to look for quick wins, particularly in developing countries.” The EU is part of a global coalition with the UN on reducing carbon in the developing world, which includes action on HFC reduction.

Ms Hedegaard said the EU would lead by example and seek to apply a mixture of persuasion and pressure to the developing nations. “We will try to show that the new solutions have a good business case and that it will pay off for lots of countries to leapfrog technologies from HCFCs straight to natural alternatives,” she said.

She added that the research for the F-Gas review had shown a clear evidence base. “In most sectors, several alternatives to F-Gases exist that are technically feasible, safe and with equal or better energy efficiency and affordable,” she stated. “It showed we do need further EU action now.

“The review will maintain and improve the F-Gas Regulation but will also offer new measures that will shift users of F-Gases to lower GWP alternatives.”

Ms Hedegaard ended by urging the natural refrigerants industry to keep the pressure on. “The current legislation will stabilise emission levels, but will not be able to cut them to meet the EU low-carbon roadmap targets,” she said.

“It is up to the European Parliament to discuss the proposals, but it needs some pushing from the industry to push the legislation through fast. Innovation is key to change and the new legislation will reward those companies who take the first action. We will work very hard to give the industry the frame to innovate.”

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