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Retail Refrigeration Stays Chill Under Regulatory Pressure

Marian Zboraj, Progressive Grocer
Retail Refrigeration Stays Chill Under Regulatory Pressure
Leer’s Refrigerated Online Grocery Pickup solutions provide turnkey options that allow retailers to get a new temperature-controlled storage unit up and running quickly.

As climate change concerns intensify, the need for sustainable refrigeration is growing. In fact, the refrigeration systems used in food retail have been called out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for years as being a primary contributor to indirect greenhouse-gas emissions.

And now, as the nation prepares for a Biden administration that favors ambitious climate policies, retailers of food and consumables could be looking at stringent new requirements regarding emissions. 

With new regulations looming, food retailers are under more pressure to make the transition to low global-warming potential (GWP) refrigeration systems. 

California’s Crackdown on HFCs 

The state of California has been a pioneer in developing regulations to reduce climate “super-pollutants” for years. Just recently, in December, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved first-in-the-nation rules to curb the impact of powerful artificial refrigerants. The new rules affect commercial and industrial stationary refrigeration units, such as those used by large grocery stores.

The refrigerants, known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are considered super-pollutants because their impact on global warming can be hundreds to thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide. For example, R404A is an HFC blend that has been used for many years as a long-term refrigerant for commercial refrigeration applications, but has come under scrutiny due to its high GWP.

“Chemical refrigerants are fast-acting super-pollutants, and the fastest-growing source of climate gases in the world today,” says Mary D. Nichols, chair of Sacramento-based CARB. “And as the earth grows warmer, people will need to cool food, medicine and their buildings even more than we do today. We need safer alternatives to be deployed as fast as possible.”

California is required to reduce HFC emissions 40% below 2013 levels by 2030 under Senate Bill 1383 to help the state achieve its goal of carbon neutrality. CARB estimates that the rules will achieve annual reductions by approximately 3.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2030.

Take note: Laws aimed at reducing HFC emissions are not only occurring in California. Sixteen other states have passed legislation that regulates HFCs, based on California’s rules, or are currently in the process of doing so.

Refrigerants Go Au Naturel 

According to the nonprofit North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC), food retailers are the key to solving the HFC problem. The average food retail system contains thousands of pounds of refrigerant that leak 25% each year. Mill Valley, Calif.-based NASRC says that this is equivalent to the emissions from powering 12 million homes, which is roughly the number of households in the state of California.

Transitioning to climate-friendly refrigerants is an effective way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Natural refrigerants — including CO2 and hydrocarbons — are environmentally safe alternatives to traditional HFC refrigerants. 

“R12 was the go-to refrigerant, from its introduction in the 1930s until the 1990s,” notes Geoffrey Gould, marketing manager at New Lisbon, Wis.-based Leer Inc. “Since then, technology improvements and environmental awareness have driven refrigerant transitions every 10-15 years. Our last transition was in 2007, when we began using R404a. Technology and global environmental awareness have enabled the introduction of a much-improved refrigerant, R290, in 2020.” 

Retail Refrigeration Stays Chill Under Regulatory Pressure
Hussmann's Smart Exchange Locker is flexible enough to be stationed either indoors or outdoors.

Classified as a hydrocarbon, R290 is a refrigeration-grade propane, suitable for a range of refrigeration applications. The high-performance refrigerant provides higher thermal conductivity to help lower running costs, a longer compressor life to lower high side compressor pressures, and less unpredictable temperature variations.  

This nontoxic refrigerant provides ultra-low GWP and Zero Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP), so it’s projected that R290 will have long-term approval as a commercial refrigerant. 

R290 is currently used in Leer’s Ice Merchandisers and will soon be used in the company’s Reach-In Storage Coolers and Freezers.

“At Leer, we investigated many options before choosing to make the switch, and we felt confident enough in R290 propane refrigerant that we invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into equipment and testing for this transition,” says Brian Nemec, Leer’s director of engineering.

CO2, another natural refrigerant, is also fast becoming food retailers’ refrigerant of choice. Denmark-based Danfoss claims that by switching over to CO2 from HFCs, food retailers can reduce their stores’ GWP to as low as 1. 

Since high upfront costs are the primary hurdle in preventing the adoption of eco-friendly refrigerants, NASRC launched a pilot program for food retailers in June to offset the upfront costs of natural refrigerant technologies.

Cool Developments in Refrigeration 

The new microSC air-cooled self-contained merchandisers from Bridgeton, Mo.-based Hussmann Corp., a Panasonic company, use the R290 refrigerant, providing energy savings of between 30% to 65% and an ODP of zero. R290 also enables the system to achieve a GWP rating of 3, compared with the average HFC refrigerant rating of greater than 1,300. The microSC line currently includes glass door merchandisers, a multideck with French doors, open multidecks, an open bunker, and horizontal self-service merchandisers. More cases will launch at the end of 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced retailers to re-evaluate the refrigerated staging areas for grocery pickup, because of the increased number of online orders. 

“With the surge of demand in online grocery, grocers had a refrigeration bottleneck,” explains Gould. “They needed cooler and freezer space at the point of need, which was often the front of the store. This is where they would stage pickup orders prior to the customer’s arrival.” Gould advises retailers to start configuring their spaces now to meet the ongoing e-commerce demand, to ease stressed operations and build for a more efficient future.

Leer’s Refrigerated Online Grocery Pickup solutions can help provide precisely configured cooler and freezer storage space for retailers. The interior space is optimized so that the maximum number of orders can be stored at point of need, eliminating unnecessary stepsand minimizing any risk of spoilage. 

In October, Hussmann introduced its Smart Exchange Locker. The self-service, secure Smart Exchange Locker provides grocers with a flexible option for omnichannel strategies. The lockers enable shoppers to pick up their goods at a time and location that works for them. Designed to meet changing customer needs, Smart Exchange is flexible enough to be stationed either indoors or outdoors. Modules are available in frozen, refrigerated and ambient temperatures. Smart Exchange meets the Department of Energy’s energy-efficiency requirements.

Additionally, Danfoss introduced a new CO2 MiniPack Solution in November to make it easy for the owners of small-format stores to harness the benefits of CO2, which has traditionally been used in food retail with large-scale refrigeration equipment. The solution includes the CCMT Light, an electric pressure-regulating valve optimized for transcritical CO2 refrigeration, and the AK-PC 572 Pack Controller that makes using CO2 approachable, even for those with little to no experience using it. According to Danfoss, the small system footprint is designed to be fully serviceable, its pressure and temperature sensors ensure food quality, and its optimal energy efficiency and pack security keep operational costs down.

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