In previous posts, I have lamented the slow take-up of conversion to lower-GWP refrigerants in Europe and have presented several doom-laden scenarios about what might happen to refrigerant prices and availability if the industry doesn’t get a move on.

I thought I would start this one off a bit more positively, and share a new a report that, while also lamenting the slow take-up of conversions, does move on to make some useful suggestions and recommendations for policy action.

This one comes from the University of Birmingham, an institution in the U.K. with plenty of experience shaking up cooling thinking, thanks to its Cold Commission and its campaign for nitrogen-cooled transport refrigeration, amongst other non-conventional cooling.

The new report, "Retail Refrigeration: Making the Transition to Clean Cold," commissioned by manufacturer Emerson Climate Technologies, places supermarkets squarely in the spotlight as the key players in the transition from HFCs under the terms of Europe’s F-Gas regulations.

But rather than simply banging on about HFC replacement, it urges the retailers to seize the opportunity to view the low-GWP refrigerants that will be required as not the end in themselves, but as the starting point for a more holistic approach to energy-efficient refrigeration. The new buzz phrase is "sustainable refrigeration."

The report’s author, visiting professor in cold economy Toby Peters, urges the supermarkets of Europe to grasp the opportunity.

Professor Peters notes in the report that retailers are currently lagging behind in the number of conversions they need to make to meet the phasedown timeframes envisaged by the F-Gas regulations.

"The evidence so far suggests commercial refrigeration in the EU faces an imminent crisis, partly because food retailers have not yet done enough to match the phase-down target for 2018. HVAC industry association EPEE warns progress is too slow and could cause severe shortages of HFCs in 2018 — when supplies will effectively fall to 48 per cent below 2015 levels — and that prices could rise 20-fold. Under such time and cost pressures, food retailers may be forced to make hasty decisions they come to regret."

So, he contends, supermarkets should accelerate their moves to lower GWP, but at the same time they should seize the initiative on additional energy efficiency measures. This he believes requires them "to fundamentally rethink store and system architectures" with the goal of becoming “zero net energy supermarkets."

A range of measures should be considered, he says, "These include total thermal demand; total system energy efficiency; preventing refrigerant leakage; maintenance; and decommissioning and end-of-life disposal." Heat recovery, he notes, is a technology that has been underexploited by supermarkets, despite the large degree of heat that could be harnessed.

Professor Peters notes that the retail sector has not historically not had a good reputation for adopting energy efficient technologies where the capital cost is high and the benefits only accrue in the longer term, so it requires a change of mindset from those holding the purse-strings — or perhaps a leap of faith, because the benefit will accrue in the longer term.

"If retailers are to make better informed judgments about the overall impact of their refrigeration choices on the environment and their businesses, they will need to consider more than upfront cost and the latest regulatory cattle-prod. Their choice of refrigeration system is not simply a matter of satisfying the F-Gas Regulation, and will affect their profitability directly through cost, and also through such issues as safety, operation, duration of store closures, future flexibility and skills."

The report also makes a series of recommendations for governments, both in the U.K. and Europewide, to enable the retailers to purse the goal of sustainable refrigeration.

This might be seen as overly optimistic — particularly in the U.K., where the government has effectively ignored the incentivising of energy efficient cooling, while building an entire infrastructure to incentivize heat – but it sets out good ambitions.

Key recommendations include: provide incentives, not just penalties, for end-users to accelerate transition to low-impact systems, such as increased depreciation allowances for new refrigeration systems that are both low-GWP and demonstrably energy efficient; and invest in the skills required to support the long-term transition to natural refrigerants, "recognising that an expanded workforce, with new competencies and certifications, is going to be required."

The report goes on to make some interesting comparisons between transcritical CO2 refrigeration — which has rapidly become the system of choice for new supermarket installations across Europe — and other systems such as hydrocarbon integral cabinets and ducted air cabinets as adopted by U.K. retailers Waitrose and Asda, respectively.

The main thrust of professor Peters’ argument is that CO2, given its relatively high capital cost and relative lack of energy efficiency, might not be the best holistic option, when compared to the inherently more efficient hydrocarbon units or the ducted air, which has to-date demonstrated both good energy efficiency and temperature control, with the benefit of a comparatively small refrigerant charge.

Given that the demands of F-Gas legislation, with its cocktail of upcoming bans and the ‘tsunami’ of price rises and availability issues on the horizon, are in danger of focusing retailers narrowly on refrigerant choice, professor Peters’ report is a timely reminder that a holistic approach will pay the most dividends for carbon reduction.

It remains to be seen whether the retailers will indeed grasp what he terms “the once in a generation chance to deliver genuinely clean cold.”