Danfoss recently hosted its 20th EnVisioneering Symposium, “The Climate and Energy Nexus in Commercial Refrigeration,” in Baltimore. Participants included commercial refrigeration OEMs, supermarket chains, contractors, utilities, regulators, and industry associations addressing issues on refrigeration driven by shifts in technology, policy, and international negotiations. 

James Boyle, senior vice president of electronic controllers and services at Danfoss, opened the symposium, stating, “The confluence of trends such as increased regulatory pressure, ever-increasing energy costs, contractor training, and consumer pressure on sustainability illustrate that we are in the midst of a shift in how supermarkets and commercial refrigeration equipment used in all food services are designed, built, and installed.”

The symposium took place on the heels of the agreement between President Obama and President Xi of China to use “the expertise and the institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).” That event sharpened the focus on the need to plan for an HFC phasedown and the adoption of low global warming potential (GWP) alternatives.

According to Keilly Witman, vice president of marketing of EOS Climate, and former head of the EPA’s GreenChill partnership, it is likely the industry will see an amendment to the Montreal Protocol for implementing an HFC phasedown, as well as movement under EPA’s SNAP program to delist high-GWP refrigerants. However, Witman advised industry members to not be distracted from a refrigerant management plan in the short-term. The industry should begin concentrating today on phasing out R-22 used in supermarkets, and choose the lowest GWP refrigerant that meets performance needs for both R-22 retrofits and new construction.

As part of President Obama’s June 2013 “Climate Action Plan,” he directed the EPA to exercise its authority through the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program to reduce emissions of HFCs in the United States. SNAP is the EPA’s legislatively-mandated process to evaluate and approve alternatives to ozone-depleting substances.

While many in the industry believe that using SNAP as a vehicle to phase down HFCs would reach beyond the program’s intended purpose and likely would be cumbersome and ineffective, it is viewed by some as a first step toward reducing HFCs in the United States.

In the years ahead, both market-driven and regulatory-driven factors will play a role in spurring the transition from HFCs. In the meantime, new technology and training are being developed to facilitate the switch to alternative refrigerants.

Daryl Erbs, director of engineering at Manitowoc Ice, shared his experience with Manitowoc’s ice-making technology. He said that synthetic blends of HFO and HFC refrigerants provide comparable performance to R-404A and significantly reduce refrigerant GWP. Use of R-290 (propane), however, offers an even lower direct GWP, improves efficiency, and provides a “natural” image, but works in only a limited range of equipment with a charge of 150 grams or less. When converting equipment from HFC-404A to R-290, the focus is on charge minimization and safety.

For applications using transcritical R-744 (carbon dioxide), controlling the cycle and optimizing components are helping to improve energy efficiency. Thanks to technology advances, a business case for CO2 supermarket refrigeration can now be made in North America. Scott Martin, director of sustainable technologies at Hillphoenix, observed that the industry has made progress in adopting CO2 as a low-GWP solution because of its high quality heat reclaim, simple oil management, and similarity of components to HFC DX systems. With the lowest GWP of one, R-744 gives the industry a “future-proof” solution. But without manufacturing scale, R-744 equipment is expensive. For example, a high-pressure control valve, bypass controller, and process controller with algorithms to manage the transcritical phase are required.

Jeff Staub, application engineering manager for Danfoss, discussed how these technology barriers are being overcome, not just with components, but also with advanced controls and training, which are becoming more prevalent. As expertise is gained and the industry better understands refrigerants and their proper application, the business case for the value of natural refrigerants becomes clearer. In the future, safety standards will need to improve, as well as contractor training to close the skills gap.

In the symposium’s summary roundtable sessions, participants concluded that continuing energy and climate concerns mean supermarkets are no longer insulated from the impact of their environmental footprint. Both market-driven and regulatory approaches will play a role in moving to refrigerant alternatives, especially natural refrigerants. Such a transition, however, will require an increased and collaborative industry focus on training, safety standards, data models, and scaling up equipment quantities.

Robert Wilkins, vice president of public affairs at Danfoss, observed, “I believe the need to change will come more abruptly than we would like. The stories we heard today of manufacturers moving ahead and developing this equipment and getting experience with leading users will help avoid some of the problems that would otherwise make this transition acute.”