Target Hits a Bullseye for Climate-Friendly Refrigeration in the U.S.

By Christina Starr, Climate Policy Analyst

American consumers looking to make sustainable choices with their grocery shopping dollars may want to consider a new commitment by Target to climate-friendly refrigeration using propane.

The past several years have marked the beginning of a tidal wave of change for grocery retailers around the world seeking to replace hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – the potent greenhouse gases most commonly used today as refrigerants – with climate-friendly alternatives like propane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, water, and air. The U.S. market has been slow to transition to these alternatives compared to regions like Europe, but Target, a retailer with nearly 1,800 stores in the United States, plans to become the first major U.S. retailer to use propane (R-290) as the refrigerant of choice in new and replacement stand-alone refrigeration equipment. Propane, a type of hydrocarbon, is a climate-friendly natural refrigerant.

Target will also be among the first companies in the supermarket industry to open new stores that use an innovative “rackless” refrigeration system, called a propane self-contained system. This system is expected to significantly decrease refrigeration energy use compared to traditional technology. It will also keep grocery aisles warm by reusing the heat emitted by refrigeration systems as a natural by-product, thereby saving additional energy during cold months.

“To have a company like Target come forward and make a commitment for major change is incredibly important for our industry,” said Keilly Witman, Founder of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, a group that is trying to overcome the hurdles to wider adoption of natural refrigerants in the United States. “This commitment by Target puts refrigeration and service suppliers on notice that they need to adapt to advanced technology and environmental best practices.”

Target announced the pledge at last month’s ATMOsphere America conference, where it also reiterated its sustainability commitments and pledged to reduce HFC and other greenhouse gas emissions. Target, along with other end users, manufacturers, and policymakers gathered at the conference to discuss the state of the U.S. market for natural refrigerants.

Conversations Shift to Changing Standards to Ease Broader Adoption

One particular hurdle to broader uptake of natural HFC-free refrigerants stood out at the conference. Participants showcased new case studies and technologies as usual, but this year presenters and audience questions focused on industry standards as key barriers to widespread market transformation.

Specifically, the need for increasing charge sizes allowed by industry standards surfaced as a key issue for broad uptake of hydrocarbons like propane. One reason Europe is so far ahead of the United States lies in the inconsistency between European and U.S. standards and codes, of which Europe’s can allow up to 1kg of hydrocarbons for certain uses, while U.S. standards maintain a restrictive 150 gram charge limit under UL 471 and ASHRAE 15. For example, if a retailer in the United States wants to use more than 150 grams, it will encounter significant obstacles, including applying for special approval from federal and local regulators, due to the requirements in these restrictive standards. Changes, both to the UL standard and to ASHRAE 15 (adopted into most building codes) to ease requirements for local jurisdictional approval, will be essential to reducing the market barriers to broader uptake of hydrocarbon refrigerants in the United States.

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), SC61C working group 4 is currently considering various proposals to more closely harmonize with European standards, allowing for charge sizes ranging from 300 grams to up to 1kg of hydrocarbon refrigerant when equipment is designed and installed according to necessary safety requirements. These proposals, if approved this year as expected, would set the stage for much broader global uptake. U.S. stakeholders should closely examine the IEC proposals now and begin conversations to lay the groundwork for quick harmonization and adoption in the U.S. under UL and ASHRAE.

EIA commented on proposed changes to ASHRAE 15, highlighting the importance from a climate perspective of updating the standards for all HFC-free alternatives, including hydrocarbons and other climate-friendly alternatives. We look forward to working collaboratively with all stakeholders in the coming months to update both UL and ASHRAE standards to allow smart, safe, and widespread uptake of climate-friendly, HFC-free refrigerants.

The takeaway message is this: Retailers and other end users of HFCs can act now. Doing so will benefit both business and the climate, particularly ahead of the global agreement expected this year at the Montreal Protocol to phase-down HFCs. On the other hand, both manufacturers and end users must also engage proactively with UL and ASHRAE 15 to submit technical proposals to change the necessary standards.