The North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC), which was formed in September, is eager to see greater use of natural refrigerants and natural refrigerant technology. The environmental nonprofit organization is focusing its efforts on promoting the use of naturals in supermarket and grocery store refrigeration.
AWARENESS AND CERTAINTY
Liz Whiteley, executive director of NASRC and a former environmental scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told The NEWS that two major factors served as the impetus for the creation of the council.
“We were hearing from a growing number of people who were excited about natural refrigerants but felt overwhelmed by the host of challenges that naturals face in the North American market,” Whitely said. “We also felt the time was right. The industry faces continual uncertainty due to various refrigerant regulations, and, at the same time, we’re becoming more and more aware of the environmental impact of fluorocarbon refrigerants. California, especially, is focused on reducing emissions of HCFCs [hydrochlorofluorocarbons] and HFCs [hydrofluorocarbons] and looking for opportunities to fund low-GWP [global warming potential] technology. We want to overcome the obstacles that are in the way of growing natural refrigerants in order to reap all the environmental benefits that naturals offer. There’s a lot of opportunity right now, especially in California.”
Keilly Witman, owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy and former director of the GreenChill partnership at the EPA, said the genesis of the group can be traced to a group of peers who were proponents of natural refrigerants and natural refrigerant technology. They would often discuss the challenges that were preventing naturals from taking off in the U.S.
“After a couple of years of sitting around saying, ‘Somebody needs to do this and somebody needs to do that,’ we realized that as long as we waited for someone else to take action, we were just going to be dissatisfied,” Witman said. “So, we changed the discussion to how we could harness the power of the industry to overcome some of the hurdles.”
It was immediately obvious that paving the way for increased use of naturals in the U.S. would take a combined effort from all of the interested parties in the natural supermarket refrigeration arena.
“No one has the time, the manpower, or the money to change the whole industry themselves, which is why we’re focused on building a coalition of all the players, including end users, equipment manufacturers, service technicians, and trade groups,” Whiteley said. “Together, we can address those challenges, one by one, in order to realize all of the environmental benefits that natural refrigerants offer.”
THREE MAIN AREAS OF FOCUS
Witman said three areas must take priority for the council to move forward and ultimately succeed.
The first is service technician training. “You can have the best system in the world, but if nobody knows how to install or maintain it, it’s useless,” Witman said. “So, we realized, with the lack of training and the small number of service technicians who have experience with natural refrigerant technology, this was one of the major challenges we needed to address.”
The second major area is what Witman calls a catch-22 in which price premiums for technologies that are basically new to the U.S. cause supermarkets to hold back on investing in the technologies, yet equipment or component manufacturers say they can’t bring prices down until more people invest in the technology. She said she hopes incentives — particularly utility incentives — are able to help overcome this challenge.
“Natural refrigerants have a double environmental advantage in that they have a low global warming potential, and they save a lot of energy in supermarkets,” Witman said. “So, we’re hoping to be able to bring in utility incentives based on energy efficiency to help combat what is still an upcharge on these systems.”
The third major area of interest is standards and codes. Witman believes a concerted effort from NASRC could help encourage standard bodies and the UL to speed up those processes.
The nascent NASRC is hopeful it can attain these goals in a three- to five-year timeframe.
Both Witman and Whiteley stress that being pro-natural refrigerants does not make them anti-synthetics.
“To be clear, the purpose of the NASRC is not to be against any of the solutions that are out there,” Witman said. “The organization is pro-naturals, but we’re certainly not anti-HFOs [hydrofluoroolefins], especially since, at this point, there really aren’t any retrofit options for naturals in existing stores. The chemical manufacturers and HFOs play a very important role, because it’s an incredible challenge to try to figure out how to make the existing store base more environmentally friendly.”
“There’s certainly a role for low-GWP HFCs and HFOs in existing equipment, and store owners will have to decide what makes the most sense for them, store by store, company by company,” Whitely added. “But, we think the time is right for new stores to embrace natural refrigerants. The supermarket industry has been through so many changes that people are becoming frustrated. They’re asking, ‘You mean we have to switch again?’ Moving to naturals now could eliminate that stress in the future and lock in environmental benefits in the form of fewer greenhouse gas emissions and decreased energy demand.”
Witman agreed that naturals are the future, and the time to start embracing them is now.
“People ask, ‘When will the EPA get off our backs?’” she said. “I tell them that the EPA will stop focusing on you when you’ve solved your environmental problems. Naturals are here now, and they get you to the point where you need to be to get the EPA off your back. Once chemical manufacturers offer a solution that achieves truly low GWPs — a zero or a one — they’ll be at an end solution, too. That’s ultimately where we’re going to have to be. And, we need to start now with new store construction, or else we’ll keep facing this endless cycle of regulations and phaseouts. It’s a long road, but you have to start somewhere, and, for us, the important thing is to make naturals a part of the conversation right now.”
EDUCATION AND CONNECTION
NASRC member Tristam Coffin, sustainable facilities coordinator for Whole Foods Market, said NASRC serves as a window into the world of natural refrigerants.
“Our goal is to be the clearinghouse for information on natural refrigeration systems across the board, including installation, maintenance, and best practices,” he said. “We also want to work to promote the adoption of these systems in North America and to create a level playing field to help make naturals an attractive option for companies in the marketplace.”
In addition to education, Coffin added that NASRC can play an important role by serving as a platform to connect people. He noted that competitors in the supermarket industry don’t typically talk to each other, but when it comes to environmental sustainability, “everyone will sink or swim together.”
“Having an organization such as NASRC to bridge the gap between competitors is extremely important, in my eyes,” Coffin said.
Coffin is hopeful NASRC can ultimately put itself out of business.
“Even though we’re a nonprofit, I hope we can close the doors on this organization in the next five years because the adoption has been done and the communication has been achieved, leaving nothing else to do,” he said.
NEEDED: ECONOMIES OF SCALE
Whiteley said that although NASRC would like to see new stores embracing natural refrigerants immediately, the group realizes it needs to encourage demonstration and pilot projects to help prove the technology and create economies of scale. At the same time, she also envisions the organization helping explain to supermarket owners what their options are and believes education and awareness are a key part of the NASRC mission.
“For me, the really exciting part is the potential for natural refrigerants to offer a win-win for the environment and for people’s bottom lines,” Whitely said. “As the technology gets better and the energy efficiency and energy savings are more proven, I think we have the potential to push the whole supermarket and grocery sector in what we strongly believe is the right direction.”
SIDEBAR: NASRC Fosters the Future of Supermarket Refrigeration
The North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC) is an action-oriented nonprofit that wants to see natural refrigerants succeed, specifically within supermarket refrigeration. According to the association’s website, the organization:
• aims to prove how forward-looking thinking can lead to favorable outcomes for industry and the environment;
• is committed to lessening the environmental impact of commercial refrigeration, which will require many solutions in both the near and long term; and
• is focused specifically on natural refrigeration and tackling the unique set of challenges natural refrigerants face in North American markets.
NASRC membership is open to any organization or individual that explicitly supports its mission of advancing natural refrigerants in North America in order to shape a more sustainable future for supermarket refrigeration. For information, visit www.nasrc.org.
Publication date: 2/8/2016