It Takes a Village: Accelerating the Adoption of Natural Refrigerant Technology Will Require a Group Effort

Bryan Beitler
Vice President, Chief Engineer, Source Refrigeration & HVAC

In response to widespread agreement about the serious environmental impact of using traditional freon-based refrigerants in grocery store applications, the U.S. supermarket industry has moved rather deliberately toward the adoption of newer, less harmful refrigerant technology.

Major manufacturers who build and design refrigeration systems have led the charge, helping to educate their customers about the benefits of natural refrigerants. Contractors have followed suit, receiving training from manufacturers both ahead of and during the installation of natural refrigerant equipment and then supplementing that training with their own programs to keep in-house technicians current and ready to service sustainable technologies. Together, contractors and manufacturers have filled a consultative role, lending support, knowledge, and advice to their retail store customers, many of whom are on the fence about natural refrigerants.

Thanks to these efforts, refrigeration systems that use natural refrigerants are slowly but surely gaining acceptance in the U.S. market. But to accelerate the adoption of natural refrigerant technology will require strategic collaboration and cooperation by multiple groups both inside and outside the refrigeration industry.

In his proposed budget for 2016-2017, the governor of California allocates $20 million to provide incentives for grocers to replace their current refrigeration systems with low-greenhouse-gas refrigerant technologies. NASRC strongly supports the Refrigerant Incentive Program—the first of its kind in the United States. But the proposal has not yet cleared the California legislature, and while it marks an important step toward bringing natural refrigerants to the mainstream, much more needs to be done in order for sustainable refrigerant technology to become the rule, rather than the exception.

Incentives such as the current proposal in California must be implemented across the remaining 49 states, increasing awareness around new refrigerant technologies and helping retailers offset the cost of switching to natural refrigerants.

Any new legislation to ban HFC refrigerants must also include funding for community colleges and technical schools with HVAC programs to immediately fast-track a sustainable refrigerant curriculum, bringing current technologies, equipment, and trainers to their facilities to educate the workforce.

Colleges and technical schools must keep abreast of new technologies and work in concert with legislators and the end user community to ensure that their curriculum stays one step ahead of environmental legislation and industry best practices rather than lagging behind. Technicians completing college-level HVACR programs must be proficient in servicing and installing systems with natural refrigerants.

The US Environmental Protection Agency should follow the example set by the California Refrigerant Incentive Program and explore ways to make it easier and more affordable for retailers to move away from HFCs and toward natural refrigerants as they remodel or build new facilities.

Manufacturers, Contractors, and Component Suppliers
Those within the refrigeration industry must continue to educate customers, advocate for regulatory and legislative change, and train technicians to install and service equipment that uses natural and sustainable refrigerants.

Facilities Operators
Retail operators ultimately bear the costs of upgrades and conversions from traditional to natural refrigerants. As the sales volume for environmentally friendly technologies increases and technicians and contractors gain proficiency with the new technology, the costs of equipment and installation will come down.

Many retailers have understandably taken a wait-and-see approach to new refrigerant technology, letting others test the waters before making a commitment. However, those retailers willing to jump in as early adopters (early by US standards, anyway!) not only help the rest of the industry move toward acceptance but also benefit from a more planned and strategic transition to natural refrigerants, avoiding a last-minute rush.

As with any other environmental initiative, funding from both the federal and state governments will be an essential part of accelerating the transformation from traditional to sustainable refrigerants. With so much at stake, it’s imperative for groups like the NASRC to continue advocating for change, spreading awareness, and seeking ways to provide the structure and support necessary to enact meaningful change.