UK supermarkets are not doing enough to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the fluorinated gases extensively used in retail refrigeration systems, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). However, the industry has hit back arguing that the conclusions are too simplistic.
The EIA’s comments follow its supermarket survey to assess the use of HFCs and the action being taken to minimise their environmental impacts.1 Supermarkets are the biggest single industry emitters of HFCs in the UK, accounting for 56% of emissions. HFC gases, the industry standard for refrigeration systems, were introduced in the 1990s in the rush to replace ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
HFCs are not ozone depleters but are strong greenhouse gases. Although their global warming potential (GWP) is less than that of CFCs and HCFCs, one tonne of the industry favourite HFC R404a still equals 3,900 tonnes of CO2 over a 100-year period.
In 2005 supermarkets’ refrigeration and air conditioning emitted HFCs equivalent to 2 million tonnes of CO2 per annum as a result of leaking systems. A report from consultants Enviros for the Environment Department (DEFRA) in 2007 said while this represented only 1.6% of UK greenhouse gas emissions their GWP means emissions should be minimised and the gases should not be used in new equipment "unless absolutely necessary".2 In response, in 2007, some of the UK’s major supermarkets called on suppliers to develop energy-efficient refrigeration systems using "natural fluids" saying the days of synthetic refrigerants "were numbered".
But EIA says the sector is not making fast enough progress. With no supermarket group having more than four stores using HFC alternatives, its says their response is "totally inadequate".It wants all supermarkets to publicly commit to ending the installation of HFC systems by the end of the year and to give a clear timetable for phasing out them out.
But supermarkets and industry experts say the EIA’s calls are premature. Ensuring that systems using CO2 instead of HFCs are energy efficient remains a key challenge.
"Of the 10% of global greenhouse gases linked to refrigeration, 2% results from leakage [of refrigerant] and 8% concerns the energy consumed [by refrigeration systems]. We need to tackle both," said Graeme Maidment, professor of engineering and expert in refrigeration at London South Bank University.
Marks and Spencer, which is on its third generation of CO2 systems, said it had seen improvements in operational efficiency with each trial, reaching the same level as HFC systems. It expects further improvement and says it will replace HFCs with CO2 once the former reach the end of their life.
Training refrigeration engineers to work with CO2 systems, which must operate at high pressures, remains a challenge.
Waitrose, which fared badly in the EIA survey, says it still has "concerns around the industry’s ability to support the technology needed to use CO2 as a refrigerant". It is focusing on hydrocarbons using cooling and heating reclaim systems and has planned supplier workshops and shop trials for this year.
"There is a huge skills gap and efficiency issues still to address. If we don’t, we risk moving from one problem to another: tackling leakage but increasing the amount of energy you use to run the system," said Jane Garthshore, president of the Institute of Refrigeration. "Trials of new systems are probably going as fast as they can."
Asda began trials in 2008 of three different options at its Bootle, Tilbury and Brynmawr stores. A full evaluation is expected this year to assess how effective the systems are in removing or reducing HFCs, energy use, and service and maintenance. From 2010 Asda aims to scale up the most successful solution so that by 2011 it is being installed in all new stores. By 2012 it hopes to have identified a model solution for all its stores.
New refrigerant types are also being developed which may move the goal posts. Asda said it had not ruled out new synthetic options. Chemical makers such as Ineos Fluor are working on HFCs with reduced GWPs to maintain a stake in the huge global market for refrigerants.
Tackling leakage is also an option for curbing the impact of existing systems. Recently the Institute of Refrigeration and the Carbon Trust launched Real Zero, providing guidance and tools to firms to reduce leakage. In advance of regulatory requirements to curb leakages in the F-gas Regulation.
"Leakage is totally unacceptable," said Darcy Nicolle, spokesman for the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), whose members produce, design and install heating, cooling and refrigeration technologies. "Regardless of the refrigerant you use, a leaky system will have an impact on the environment because it won’t be as efficient."
The government appears to be taking a more proactive stance in advising the supply chain. At the end of January DEFRA held an industry meeting to explore HFC-free technologies. Guidance is also being developed to set out options to reduce HFC use.
DEFRA also points to the European Commission’s forthcoming review of the F-gas Regulation, "in which it plans to take an active role", due to be completed by July 2011. Among options likely to be considered are further bans on fluorinated gases, DEFRA said.