PHOENIX — As the Environmental Protection Agency’s GreenChill partnership approaches its fifth anniversary at the end of November, the voluntary program can report that its goal-setting, record-keeping methods have enabled its retail members to cut their refrigerant leak rates to under 13% — almost half that of the industry as a whole.
The seemingly unavoidable refrigerant leaks that spring from supermarket refrigeration systems — at an average annual rate of 25% of total refrigerant charge — have cost the U.S. supermarket industry dearly for decades, while prompting the EPA to impose regulatory limits on leak rates to curtail their environmental impact.
Yet the roughly 8,000 stores in the GreenChill program, representing about 20% of the industry, were able to limit their commercial refrigeration leaks to a cumulative average of 12.95% in 2011 — 12.1% when air conditioning and self-contained refrigeration are included.
The majority of GreenChill’s members have leak rates under 15%, and nine have rates under 10% — something widely regarded as impossible when GreenChill was created in 2007. And the six best GreenChill stores, which have earned platinum certification from the program, have not leaked any refrigerant at all.
At a time when food retailers are facing diminishing supplies of the ozone-depleting refrigerant R-22, and growing concerns about the global-warming impact of HFC refrigerants, keeping those refrigerants from escaping into the atmosphere has become a business as well as an environmental imperative for many, despite the challenging economy.
“You would have to sell about 20,000 gallons of milk to pay to replace a 100-pound refrigerant leak,” noted Keilly Witman, GreenChill’s manager since its inception, who is widely credited with spearheading the program’s development.
The companies that join GreenChill pledge to set a leak reduction goal and to track their emissions to see if they meet their goal. And those that achieve it don’t stop there. “Once the GreenChill partners get down to a low leak rate, they still continue to try to improve,” said Witman. “You have a lot of competition and it raises the bar because they are all trying to do better and better.”
Read more: EPA Still Mulling R-22 Limits for 2012 
Witman acknowledged that while retail members improve their leak rates in part by installing leak-tight systems in new stores, the real problems with leakage are in aging systems in existing stores. “We can’t rely on new systems to make a dent in the industry,” she told SN. “We’ve got to do a lot of work on existing systems and make those as leak-tight as we can.”
One way to address lingering leak issues is to address them during the process of replacing R-22 — which is being phased out by the EPA — with another refrigerant. “It’s not just about sucking out one chemical and replacing it with something that doesn’t harm the ozone layer,” Witman said. “It’s about using the opportunity to repair leaks.”
Giant Eagle: Best Refrigerant Emissions Rate
Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle , winner of GreenChill’s award for best refrigerant emissions rate for the fourth time in five years, is an example of a retailer that is focused on improving existing systems rather than introducing new alternatives. The chain relies on data-driven management systems and infrared leak detection technology, noted Witman. “They attribute their success to preventative maintenance, and they find any leaks incredibly quickly and repair them.”
GreenChill has helped raise the bar with its certification program, which annually certifies stores that meet strict leak and charge criteria at three levels — silver, gold and platinum. Currently, 89 stores have been certified, including 38 new and 51 existing stores, for silver (54), gold (29) and platinum (six). “The point of the certification program is to design systems that prevent leaks vs. the traditional situation where you get into a cycle of repairing leaks,” Witman said.
Read more: Giant Eagle Again Recognized for Lowest Leak Rate 
Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market , El Segundo, Calif., was recognized with the Store Certification Excellence Award as the company that achieved the most GreenChill store certifications in the past year (23). The distinguishing aspect of these stores is that most use traditional centralized DX (direct expansion) refrigeration systems, said Witman. “They looked at DX technology and examined every opportunity to reduce the charge and cut back on leaky components,” she said. “If everybody built DX systems [like this], we wouldn’t have a problem in the industry,”
The GreenChill program recognizes that food retailers, given their extremely tight margins, must be sensitive to the cost impact of refrigeration changes. Thus when a new refrigeration technology — such as the transcritical, carbon-dioxide-based system being rolled out by Canadian retailer Sobeys  — does emerge, it can’t just be an environmental answer; it has to make sense financially for other retailers to follow suit, she said.
Read more: Sobeys Wins Sustainability Excellence Award 
Yet GreenChill also depends on pioneers to pave the way for the industry. “We see with GreenChill how you can accelerate the rate of change if you have someone who has tried something and is willing to share information about it,” said Witman. “If we had to wait for everybody to experiment with every new technology on their own, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today.”
One of the six platinum stores — a new Albertsons  in Carpinteria, Calif. — uses a refrigeration system that Witman regards as “an important milestone” for being the first in the U.S. to use only natural refrigerants (ammonia and carbon dioxide) that have a negligible impact on climate change. The store also received GreenChill’s Best Certified Store Award — the “best of the best.”
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