The fridge your grocery store uses may actually be making things a little warmer. Leaking pollutants from traditional refrigeration systems are a common culprit for certain types of environmental harm, including climate change. But emerging refrigeration technologies are letting grocers big and small help out the environment and keep their perishables cool at the same time. It may also help their bottom lines.

Since 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sponsored the GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership. The object of GreenChill is to create and promote working relationships between the EPA and retailers, suppliers and manufacturers. These partnerships have the aim of reducing the overall environmental impact of refrigerating systems used in the country’s food retailers, including our over 35,000 grocery stores and supermarkets.

Partners in the initiative set annual emission reduction goals and pledge to use ozone-friendly alternatives in all new buildings. In addition to their negative effects on climate change via the greenhouse effect, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are in the very same family as the infamous ozone-depleting agents we already know about. Of the 35,000-plus grocery stores nation wide, fewer than 40 have received the treasured plaque that comes with certification. Were all the stores in the country to reduce emissions down to the GreenChill standard, the equivalent of 22,000,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide would be kept out of the air annually.

Most of the supermarkets in the United States use a centralized refrigeration system known direct expansion (DX). These utilize centralized compressors, with refrigeration lines running throughout the store. The goal is to get retailers to buy into smaller, more efficient refrigerating systems, such as distributed systems, which feature individual cooling units next to display cases in the store. Another key part of the GreenChill treatment is ensuring better building standards, in order to cut down on refrigerant leakage from stores. They also emphasize a transition to non-ozone-depleting refrigerants to lighten the load on the environment, including a CO2 based technology that is gaining popularity with eco-friendly retailers as they build new stores.

Many natural product retailers have become a part of the GreenChill Store Certification Program, where individual store locations must meet certain emission standards and other criteria to achieve different levels of certification, such as a store-wide annual HFC emissions rate of 15% or less for Gold-Level certification. Retailers such as Sprouts, WholeFoods Market and Down to Earth, an all vegetarian and organic chain based in Hawaii, have had individual stores certified and are trying to create awareness about the issue. Sprouts opened a Gold-certified store in Culver City, CA this June, their fifth store to be certified.

According to Keilly Witman, manager of the GreenChill partnerships, a typical store has a refrigerant charge of about 4,000 pounds, of which they are often leaking 25%. "An existing store can achieve an awful lot just by making emissions reduction a priority and establishing a ‘no leak tolerance’ policy. We've seen huge improvements just as a result of service technicians using GreenChill's best practices, or something as simple as mandating that someone walks through every store once a month with a hand held leak detector," Witman explains.

The other major benefit of advanced refrigeration for companies involves another kind of green entirely, according to advocates. While a hurdle to mainstream acceptance of advanced refrigeration may be higher upfront costs, the EPA and its partners insist it is to a grocer’s economic benefit in the long run. Leaking refrigerants have to be replaced, which costs money. Advanced systems may be more energy efficient, as well. "From what we've seen anecdotally so far, we are pretty sure that advanced refrigeration systems save a store money over the life of the system. The question is how long it takes to recoup the initial equipment upcharge through energy, material, maintenance, and refrigerant savings," Witman says.

One study conducted by a participating company, according to Witman, found that advanced refrigeration became cost-effective in three years at the most, depending on the store location. The EPA is in fact conducting their own long-term analysis of the economics of advanced refrigeration, which the agency is confident will wind up highlighting its benefits. The EPA also points out that retailers should stay ahead of the regulatory game by getting in on the green revolution now, rather than paying the price down the road when changes will be legally required.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, November 2010 (ahead of print on September 23, 2010)