By Aaron Daly, Global Energy Coordinator, Whole Foods Market
Utilities are fundamentally driven to co-invest in energy efficiency with their customers. To that end, many utilities have become quite sophisticated in their understanding of conventional refrigeration technology and how to make it more energy efficient. But very few of them understand natural refrigeration systems in the same way.
The divergence in technology between HFC and natural systems can be compared to that of internal combustion engines versus electric vehicle drivetrains. Both require fundamentally different engineering. And efficiencies gained in one technology are rarely applicable to the other. Some benefit can be derived from building a more efficient internal combustion engine, but even the most efficient design can’t overcome the fundamental challenge of burning of fossil fuels and releasing pollutants into the air. Likewise, the most energy efficient HFC-based refrigeration systems will always present an environmental hazard — no matter how efficiently they operate.
The skill set required to build a better, more fuel efficient internal combustion engine has no relevance to building a better electric vehicle. And the skill set required to make an HFC-based system more energy efficient doesn’t translate directly to making natural refrigeration systems more efficient. Each path requires an investment of knowledge and resources, but only one can take us all the way.
Catch-22: Perception drives reality
Most utilities today are not equipped to offer the rebate programs or engineering support to achieve energy efficiency goals for natural refrigeration systems. At the same time, end users such as Whole Foods Market are looking at making that switch from HFC to natural refrigeration systems, but they don’t want to reverse hard-earned energy savings when they convert to natural refrigerants.
Utilities can help us overcome this catch-22 by changing their focus from making traditional systems more efficient to making natural systems more efficient. There is an assumption in the supermarket community that natural systems are inherently less efficient at best, and at worst, have intrinsic operational and maintenance challenges. Those assumptions are not based in fact.
The reality is that, like automobiles, legacy technologies have the unfair advantage of decades of engineering optimization. We’ve only just started to look at electric vehicles, and look how far we’ve come! Many years of research and development have gone into fine tuning HFC-based systems. But today’s natural refrigeration systems already offer a superior and immediate opportunity for sustainability that far exceeds anything one could ever achieve with HFC-based systems.
Utilities can break the cycle
Utilities are in a unique position to bring co-investment and a sense of assurance to the end user market. When utilities get behind natural refrigeration, end users will be encouraged to take a second look. Likewise, utilities can help those in the industry already looking at natural refrigeration systems to make them the most energy efficient that they can be. Without such attention from utilities, the pressures on end users for energy efficiency and those for emissions reductions will diverge, leading to misalignment of objectives and making utility programs less relevant to the commercial refrigeration community.
Now is the time for utilities to develop the program models and rebate structures to support supermarkets in developing the next generation of refrigeration technology – naturals-based systems. Such programs and rebates will support the win-win solution of energy efficiency and environmentally friendly technology.