During Climate Week in New York City in late September, while millions of schoolchildren marched in the streets in more than 1,000 cities to protest lack of action on climate breakdown, their leader, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, was in New York telling adults to stop acting like children.
I had the good fortune of an invitation to the Climate Group opening ceremonies, which featured several prime ministers, governors and United Nations executives, who did their best to avoid the hollow promises Greta was calling out.
California Governor Gavin Newsom said that in the port areas near Los Angeles, leaking refrigeration gases are connected with high rates of asthma, cancer and poor fertility in the surrounding areas. Before hurrying away to meet with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Executive Director of U.N. Environment Inger Andersen said about 50 percent of the world's food goes to waste, due to inadequate or unavailable refrigeration.
Among Climate Week workshops were some under the Cool Coalition umbrella, featuring knowledge sharing between corporate, government and environmental organizations. Several speakers said demand for cooling would grow dramatically worldwide as the population increases, the building stock expands and the planet heats up.
If we can keep pace with the provision of the cooling and refrigeration needed, it will prevent vaccine scarcity, food supply difficulties and save lives. They also said we could not allow the leaking of old-style refrigerants to add to planetary heating. So, a lot more refrigeration is needed fast, and we must lose the HFCs pronto. No pressure.
In the early summer of 2019, efforts continued to try to help minimize uncertainty for manufacturers and refrigeration professionals in the United States through an event for crucial refrigeration groups in Washington, D.C.
Groups such as the Heating Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International; the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute; the Air Conditioning Contractors of America; and the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada met with Trump administration officials and tried to secure a federal policy on HFC phasedown. The hope is to provide some standardization in the face of a patchwork of differing state approaches.
The fear is that without U.S. leadership, manufacturing could move overseas where regulations and opportunities are clear and consistent. In the United States, varying state policies are an unwelcome direction for producers who are eager to make production decisions, distributors who are trying to avoid unnecessary regulatory and transportation complexities, contractors who are trying to plan for updated procedural requirements, and the trade groups themselves, who are working on training and backup strategies.
It seems as if the whole industry is seeking a national policy more aligned with international trends.
But as sometimes happens with technological change, corporate infighting over refrigerants could reveal a slightly different story. It may be conflicting with advancing the industry as a whole and, during this time of acute climate awareness, conflicting with health and environment benefits.
The Sierra Club reported that through a Freedom of Information request, it learned that representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met with at least one of this country’s chemical companies in 2017. This chemical producer aggressively promoted the ideas that naturally occurring chemicals — including propane, iso-butane, ammonia, air, water and carbon dioxide — achieved “poor energy performance, had higher operating costs and severe safety risks.”
The company encouraged the current administration to steer our cooling and refrigeration industry towards its own products instead.
Retailers embrace natural refrigerants
During Climate Week, Thomas Lingard, global sustainability leader from Unilever, said his company, Pepsi and Coke had formed an alliance, and they are now using plug-and-play cabinets across the globe with R290 propane refrigerant. Target and Walmart also have begun using them.
In 2016, Guillaume Grolier, a commercial director for AHT Cooling Systems in France, said, “We’re recording better energy efficiency results than with HFCs.”
His comment was based on the installation of about 10,000 R290 cabinets each year in Europe, with a total at that time of about 70,000 in France alone. Obviously, customers think cooling efficiency from natural refrigerants is adequate.
Walmart opened its first store in the United States using C02 refrigeration in 2009 and has been upgrading stores since then. In 2013, the Environmental Investigation Agency said Walmart was using a secondary loop refrigeration system combining either carbon dioxide or glycol and HFCs in about 125 stores. In 2016, Walmart built a store in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and installed a C02 refrigeration system, heat reclaim and geothermal heating and cooling. It saves about $130,000 on energy each year compared to comparable Walmart stores.
Around the same time, the mega-retailer built a 450,000-square-foot refrigerated distribution center near Calgary, Alberta, with a modern ammonia refrigeration system and a handful of other clean energy technologies. It saves about a million dollars on energy each year. Operating costs with natural refrigerants are not a concern.
In 2015, Piggly Wiggly opened a 36,000-square-foot store in Columbus, Ga., using an ammonia/C02 refrigeration system. It employed an ultra-low 53 pounds ammonia charge and a carbon dioxide charge of 1,400 pounds. It also saves about 25 percent on energy, which was tested via an R407A rack alternating every few weeks with the ammonia rack in condensing the carbon dioxide.
The system conforms with ammonia safety standards (IIAR-2, IBC, IMC, IFC, EPA and ASHRAE-15) and is approved by the local fire marshal. Because the ammonia charge is under 100 pounds, there are no reporting or on-site engineer requirements.
Whole Foods, Albertsons and Raley’s also are operating successful ammonia/C02 systems. Whole Foods has at least 20 installations and also is using standalone propane units. As long ago as 2009, Tesco in the United Kingdom and Metro in Germany each had five grocery stores using carbon dioxide refrigeration. Pepsi was testing C02 and other natural refrigerants in its coolers even then.
Soon afterward, similar systems from Lesage-LMP Inc. were installed in a handful of Sobey’s stores in Quebec and Ontario. Lesage-LMP uses transcritical subcooling, a mechanical process to increase the system's efficiency from about 6.5 BTU/watt to about 9.5 BTU/watt, optimizing compressor performance.
A floating head pressure innovation allows for the adaptation of the compressors from the transcritical to the subcritical phase, which also improves the coefficiency of performance. The system uses a hot gas defrost method, employing reclaimed low temperature (38 F to 40 F) latent heat to defrost coils, saving on electricity and capital costs.
Ice arenas, breweries using ammonia systems
Last year, Plumbing Engineer reported on the Bentley Arena in Boston (and arenas in many other places) using heat reclaim systems. Arena veteran Scott Ward predicted that ammonia would make a comeback for arena systems.
“Ammonia gets bad press because it’s more toxic, but we’ve been using it successfully since the 1800s,” Ward said. “The safety systems are built into the code, but the placement of devices and room layout matters too.”
We described a modern cascading double-loop ammonia system in a Nova Scotia arena that cost much less to operate than other alternatives. It was used with an underfloor radiant heat system, a Sabroe heat pump for heat reclamation from the ice plant and advanced controls. The ice-making and the heat pump energy recovery both operated with ammonia and with reciprocating compressors.
“Ammonia is great because the world has a boatload of it and it’s inexpensive,” said Colin James, service manager and technician for Mayekawa, a Japanese compressor manufacturer nearly 100 years old. “Our company focuses on natural refrigeration using C02, ammonia, air, water, butane and propane.”
James described a major brewery operation located in Toronto.
“It would use probably 50,000 pounds of ammonia,” James explained. “If they had a leak in a densely populated city like that, there could be an evacuation needed.”
James has been working on the large systems for 24 years and says the chief brewer still might choose an ammonia system because “the difference between the old days and today are that you now have far more health and safety regulations and processes protecting people from leaks.”
However, for better containment, he says his company and others are creating large systems, including one at a brewery, with much lower ammonia charges and with heat exchangers and secondary loops of carbon dioxide, brine or food-grade glycol.
“The ammonia doesn’t have to come in contact with the building or the product, but the added heat exchanger does increase the system cost,” James noted. “This also means the ammonia charge is small, which seems to be the current trend. I haven’t seen brand new systems with massive ammonia charges.”
James said more innovative designs are emerging as technicians become familiar with natural refrigerants. James described an installation in a northeast seafood plant that uses a large volume of hot water in its operations. There is no gas service in the region, so the plant was using costly oil-fired water heaters.
“It already had a regular ammonia system for making solid ice blocks,” James said. “We took the gas from that system before it is rejected outside and increased it to 450 pounds pressure using a heat exchanger and ammonia and two 125-horsepower electric compressors. Now they have plenty of far less expensive hot water at 158 F without fossil fuels.”
Quinn Vo, Mayekawa’s corporate engineer, describes a relatively new technology that the company has developed using air as a refrigerant. Called PascalAir, the system is based on the principle that air generates heat when it is compressed and loses heat when it is expanded. However, while expanding, its temperature drops below the original temperature.
The system feeds air into a heat exchanger, where it is heated then drawn into a compressor and compressed until it reaches 200 F. It is then cooled to -103 F, decompressed and expanded to reach -148 F. Repetition of the process keeps the air in the space at -112 F. There is no air cooler, no refrigeration piping and no defrosting. The system offers high-level safety and security for humans with virtually no environmental impact.
The company says more than 100 PascalAir units are in operation for low-temp tuna storage and the pharmaceutical industries. Search for more information at https://youtu.be/X2zkNjDL4K0.
Carbon dioxide and space heating
In the space-heating world, suppliers of heat pumps — an increasing amount of them producing C02 heat pumps — are getting far more attention in 2019 than they were even one year ago, according to manufacturers Sanden and Mayekawa. In the buildings and HVAC sessions at Climate Week New York, virtually every presenter and panelist at some point talked about the proliferation of heat pumps, air-source heat pumps, C02 heat pumps, ground-source heat pumps and natural refrigerants.
“We have children in the streets who want the truth, and having the message come from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and the Secretary-General of the United Nations is not enough,” said Rachel Kyte, special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for sustainable energy for all. “We must go from these rooms and spread the news to bring everyone else in. You’ve heard from all our panelists about the economic benefits of sustainable systems. The laggards must be called out not just by Greta, but by us. It’s about designing the future for ourselves and our young people.”
There is no way to know if misinformation about natural refrigerants created within the cooling industry itself and delivered to the White House will help with sales of the products of those who are not in the natural refrigerant business. But they are not helping our planet and are unlikely to help with the politics of the international standards alignment problem.
In any case, as shown here, natural refrigerants are emerging as useful in numerous applications. Dozens of manufacturers have proven systems employing them and are introducing new products every day. Plenty of case studies show North American companies, such as grocery retailers with numerous locations or heavily used public buildings including sports arenas, switching to natural refrigerants.
For good reasons, they will continue to switch to successful, safe and economically viable cooling and refrigeration installations using natural refrigerants.
Greta may be right: “It’s time for adults to stop acting like children.”