Revolution and the rise of refrigeration
The Sixties in Britain might primarily be associated with a swinging cultural revolution in music and fashion, but it was also the decade that witnessed another, rather more practical, domestic, lifestyle trend sweep across the nation: The rise of the refrigerator.
At lot has changed since, but refrigeration remains vital to the food industry for maintaining quality, extending life and reducing waste and now accounts for just under a quarter of total in-store energy consumption in a typical food retailer.
The rise of refrigeration has not however occurred without environmental cost. Over the years, society came to understand the atmospheric (ozone layer) impacts of refrigerant gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and the threat they posed to the ozone layer. Following a total ban, industry moved primarily to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), but these have now been identified as a growing source of greenhouse gases (GFGs), responsible for accelerating global warming. Unabated, they could represent 10% of all global emissions by 2050.
Recognising the issues involved as far back as 2007, M&S set targets to improve refrigeration performance, not just for new stores but also the much larger challenge of existing ones too.
In keeping with standard industry practice, most of our stores had been set up to run on HFC refrigerant. It would have been wasteful economically and environmentally to scrap existing HFC based refrigeration kit that might have another 20 years of life. So recognising the need for a rapid reduction in our refrigeration carbon footprint ourfirst response was to switch to another HFC gas with a lower GWP as an interim step.
Previously, M&S was operating on an HFC called R404a with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 3990, but now runs its chillers and freezers on R407a with GWP of 1990, less than half the original figure. GWP measures the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere per kilogram of refrigerant. This has helped reduce our refrigeration carbon footprint by 73% since 2006-07.
All new M&S stores run on a mix of natural refrigerants and HFCs, with a small central HFC system used to cool a vessel full of natural refrigerant (CO2 or hydrocarbon which can then be pumped around to chill the food. This process minimises the total HFC charge considerably and reduces HFC leakage too.
Testing of a totally HFC-free solution is already well advanced and the first M&S stores using this mature technology are being installed in early 2015.
Recent changes in legislation governing HFCs mean their cost will start to increase around 2018 as production is phased out. This, combined with energy savings, will really help in building the business case across the sector for investment in HFC-free kit.
Collaborating with the supply chain on bringing forward eco innovation, the food industry is also looking closely at very-low-GWP next-generation refrigerants called hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), as well as how refrigeration systems can be used both to heat and cool stores, so saving energy.
The simple fact remains, though, there is no one solution to low-carbon refrigeration. M&S has a demanding overall 80% GHG-reduction target (already 73% achieved) for 2020. We are also one of the few food retailers globally to set a target (2030) for total HFC phase out. . The company has a clear plan to shift to low-carbon refrigeration and report on progress openly and honestly, yet knows it cannot sort this out alone and is working with other retailers and brands via the Consumer Goods Forum to deliver whole sector change.
This shift to low carbon is not an easy transition, but one thing is certain: As a century of change clocks up and the early-1960s become the late-2050s, the refrigeration revolution will have taken place; and M&S will have played its part.
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