Saturday, August 19, 2017

Leaks You'll Never See in Food Stores Are Warming the Earth

Display cases (Credit: Open Grid Scheduler Grid Engine/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
When it comes to making refrigeration more efficient and less harmful to the climate, U.S. supermarkets have been a long-slumbering giant.  There are at least 38,000 of them.  They spend 50 to 60 percent, on average, of their energy bills on cooling people and food, which puts them among the biggest commercial building electricity users.

According to a recent study by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the average supermarket uses about 2.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, the equivalent of about 213 American homes.  Sixty to 70 percent of their electricity for air conditioning and refrigeration is spent pushing refrigerants through miles of pipes and running big compressors and condensers to keep things cool.

The rest is spent to run display cases, cooler fans, evaporator defrosting and small heaters used to prevent condensate from forming on glass doors and display cases, so people can see the food.  Supermarkets can afford to pay those big electricity bills.  They have an annual sales volume of almost $770 billion, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

Environmental lawyer Keilly Witman's job was to remind them that their leaking refrigerants had already been blamed for destroying the Earth's ozone layer, which protects people from harmful solar radiation.  She was also there to alert them that many newer ozone-saving refrigerants are chemicals with thousands of times the global warming potency of carbon dioxide.

People in EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division warned Witman that the leaky pipe problem had festered for years and they needed a creative way to solve it.  She saw her job as a rare opportunity.  "The EPA is not used to having to convince people to do things," Witman explained.  She set up a voluntary program called the GreenChill Partnership; it was meant to find companies that had innovative ways of preventing refrigerant leaks, so they might help other supermarket chains.

GreenChill was the beginning of EPA's good-cop, bad-cop approach to the problem.  A few chains, such as Whole Foods, Hannaford Bros. and Harris Teeter, were interested right away, but others took years of convincing.

Air conditioning was invented in the United States, and the technology hasn't changed much until recently.  There is a new family of refrigerants in Europe and Asia that were gaining attention.  In her sales pitch, Witman — who was once the entire staff of GreenChill — would point out that stores in Europe had been able to cut the cost of their leaks by using a much cheaper chemical — carbon dioxide — as a refrigerant.

That took more explaining, because CO2 has been thoroughly villainized for causing global warming.  Man-made emissions from burning fossil fuels, beginning with coal, are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.  But popular refrigerants, such as a fluorinated chemical called HFC-404A, are 3,922 times more potent than CO2 as global warmers.

Witman's biggest selling point was that reducing refrigerant leaks would help supermarkets make money.  According to EPA, the average U.S. supermarket leaks 1,000 pounds of refrigerant a year, which, at a cost of $10 to $20 per pound, is expensive.  Preventing leaks also would eliminate emergency service calls that were seen as a fact of life in the supermarket industry.

"When people realized you could actually save money, we had people joining the partnership who really didn't care about the environment.  They just wanted to save the money," Witman said.  "That was no problem for me, because the whole time they were saving money, they were helping the environment."

Read more at Leaks You'll Never See in Food Stores Are Warming the Earth

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