High-Polluting Refrigerants and the Trend Toward Natural Alternatives
It’s no secret that supermarkets and food retailers are among the country’s most significant HFC refrigerant users — and that refrigerant leaks are an industry-wide problem. Recent regulations have the supermarket industry reviewing refrigerant use across facilities and making changes. Because supermarket refrigeration is such a large and important segment of our work at CoolSys, we’re sharing this introduction to the topic to help our entire team understand the issues and regulations in the refrigerant industry.
What Are HFCs?
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are among the greenhouse gases that are known to contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. HFCs are most commonly used in HVAC and refrigeration equipment. The EPA regulates these gases due to their high Global Warming Potential (GWP). Many refrigerants commonly used today have GWP values that are hundreds of times higher than CO2 (carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas). Once considered a suitable replacement for ozone-depleting substances, HFCs are now the world’s fastest-growing greenhouse gas as the global demand for refrigeration and air conditioning continues to climb.
What Are Natural Refrigerants?
Natural refrigerants like CO2, ammonia and propane are low GWP refrigerants that “future-proof” facilities by getting ahead of the growing wave of refrigerant regulations in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, these natural refrigerants reduce gas, energy and water consumption. CO2 systems are often the best option among natural refrigerants because they are safer than ammonia and more scalable than propane. The EPA classifies non-toxic, non-flammable CO2 as a safety group A1 refrigerant, making it a preferred refrigerant for use in public by retail customers.
How Are Refrigerants Being Regulated?
In late 2020, Congress enacted the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, which directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the nation’s HFC problem. In response, the EPA implemented a landmark program to make a phased, 85% reduction in the country’s production and use of HFCs by 2036.
The EPA estimates that in 2036 alone — the final year of the phased reductions — the changes will prevent greenhouse gas emissions roughly equal to the annual output from one out of every seven U.S.-registered passenger vehicles! This move is estimated to reduce global warming by a significant half a degree Celsius by 2100. The benefits aren’t just environmental: The EPA also estimates annual net benefits of $1.7 billion, rising to $16.4 billion in 2036.
In addition to these national regulations, individual states have the authority to enact stricter rules regarding HFC use. The North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council has an HFC tracking tool that shows the status of each state’s regulations.
What Are the Implications for Supermarkets?
The average supermarket system uses thousands of pounds of refrigerant and, due to the size and complexity of its refrigeration system, leaks 25% of its refrigerant each year. According to the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, a single supermarket emits, on average, 875 pounds of HFCs each year, equal to the carbon dioxide from more than 300 cars. Since most supermarket refrigeration systems run on HFCs, stores will have to switch to low-GWP refrigerant systems to comply with the EPA’s HFC reduction program.
Why Should Supermarkets Consider Switching to Natural Refrigerant Options Now?
CO2 systems and other natural refrigerants aren’t a new concept. Early in their development, CO2 systems were challenging to install and maintain, and their costs were prohibitively expensive. That has all changed.
Today, as refrigerant regulations take widespread effect, transcritical CO2 systems are becoming an increasingly competitive low-GWP refrigerant alternative to conventional refrigerant systems, with over 30,000 CO2 systems installed worldwide. Not only do these systems offer tremendous environmental benefits, but they future-proof companies’ investments in their mission-critical infrastructure.
CoolSys is an industry-leading expert in CO2 and other natural refrigerant systems. We’re committed to helping food retailers adopt low-GWP refrigerants for the future of supermarket refrigeration — and our planet. As a leader in CO2 technology, with over a decade of experience installing more than 150 CO2 systems across the country, CoolSys has the expertise to help supermarkets transition away from HFCs and get ahead of national and state regulations.