The natural refrigerant industry in Australia is standing firmly on its own two feet. Undoubtedly, Australia’s two largest food retailers Woolworths and Coles, who share close to 80% of the market, have an equally sizeable role to play in setting the sustainable agenda.

Yet the strong regulatory frameworks that provide a stable platform for markets abroad are not yet at work in the same way in Australia. Europe still remains the leader, while more recently the US has strengthened at government level to provide more support for sustainable alternatives like natural refrigerants.

In the absence of similar initiatives in Australia, major retailers are left to innovate and excel. “I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true,” says Woolworths’ National Engineering Manager Michael Englebright amidst the serene surrounds of Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria.

“It’s really up to the big players in the industry here in Australia. We’d love to see the government regulating the industry and providing subsidies, but if we have to wait for that then our store fleets will be nearing their end of life. We’ve got to be proactive and get on the front foot.” 

And getting on with it is exactly what Woolworths has done. Its supermarket chain has over 150 CO2 cascade installations throughout Australia – its current ‘business as usual’ technology – and is eager to implement CO2-only waterloop showcases and CO2 transcritical systems. The end game is to adopt transcritical technology, a more difficult proposition in Australia (given the warmer climate) than in New Zealand, where Woolworths launched its first transcritical store under its Countdown banner at the end of March 2016.

“Fortunately, here in Australia we have [five commercial] transcritical systems up and running and they haven’t missed a beat. So as the technology continues to develop for us it’s a no brainer for the future.” With the commercial sector’s long history of using CO2 in Australia, including maintenance, internal training and technological expertise, a market-wide move to CO2 transcritical would be a “logical transition” says Englebright.

Over a decade of CO2

When starting out in 2004, Englebright worked for two years at local contractor Frigrite – including on the first full CO2 liquid recirculation system, an experience he describes as “a huge stepping stone in [his] career.”,“They had the team and structure to introduce natural refrigerants and begin to look at alternative solutions to phase out HFCs. So looking at the alternatives and lessons learned from Europe they went on a tour of Europe and looked at the technologies available, through a close collaboration with Bitzer and Woolworths,” he says.

Englebright senses the winds of change are inevitable. “Early on [in 2004] the development of natural refrigerants technology was slow, maybe once or twice a year, whereas now it’s continuous, it happens ever quarter, I’m getting calls all the time with the latest natural refrigerant solutions. Availability is increasing and cost is coming down. Now it’s just picking the right solution for the application.”

From the initial full CO2 liquid recirculation systems Woolworths transitioned to CO2/R134a systems as its ‘business as usual’ technology and now adopts these for all new stores and refurbished stores where feasible. Woolworths’ new meatpacking facility in Truganina (Victoria) uses a two-stage ammonia system in unison with a CO2 ‘business as usual’ hybrid system and NH3 Ammonia.

“Our [hybrid technology] really showed us the way and we have now adopted a highly efficient hybrid system,” Englebright says. “With the evolution of the CO2 technology and the adoption of so many different suppliers, now it’s becoming very competitive to really look at transcritical CO2.”

Waterloop technology equipped with CO2 for its showcases is of great interest to Woolworths. The retailer trialled the solution with ARNEG Oceania back in December 2015: “We’re just waiting on a compressor manufacturer for the availability of a CO2 ‘transcritical-type’ version”. He sees Panasonic’s latest acquisition of Hussmann, Woolworth’s biggest supplier, as a step towards greater investment in this type of technology.

Wave of CO2 transcritical imminent

Blessed with sun, surf and endless space, Australia’s climate hasn’t necessarily aided the cause for CO2 transcritical. Above the ‘critical point’ of 31°C, reached easily and often in many parts of regional and coastal Australia, CO2 systems face additional challenges to maintain efficiencies. “[CO2 transcritical] is proven with over 5,000 systems in Europe,” Englebright says. However he added, Australia has a very different climate. “With our high ambients, CO2 transcritical was not really suited to this environment but now with the progression into parallel compression, adiabatic cooling, it makes it a very, very interesting proposition.”

Woolworths is now conducting a feasibility study and sees parallel compression as “vital” for Australia’s high ambient temperatures. “Some of these [European and US] manufacturers are making a second model of their transcritical systems which is very promising for us. We found that there were a number of things we were able to extract out of the ‘Rolls Royce’ system and make it work here, and parallel compression for the warmer parts of Australia is one of them.”

The more CO2-based refrigerant companies enter the market, the more competitive Englebright believes these systems will become. He wants to accelerate industry action through collaborative training initiatives and policy discussion. As well as this the company owns its own service and installation division through Retail FM.

Last year Woolworths commenced the first stage of its natural refrigerant training strategy with an online e-learning training portal from Danfoss, where its 200+ technicians are trained on CO2 technology followed by a second stage of field days with TAFE (Technical and Further Education) institutions. Each technician’s progress is then tracked.

“When we evolve to new technology like CO2 transcritical they know all the fundamentals, they know the refrigerant, they know the technology; it’s just the operating conditions that change,” Englebright says.

He hopes other retailers will embrace the new change. “If companies like Woolworths steer the way, obviously that leads to an industry-recognised training scheme. We would hope that Coles, ALDI and IGA get involved as well so we can take a collaborative approach, because at the end of the day it’s the front line people who are supporting us.”

The full version of this article appears in the inaugural edition of Accelerate Australia & New Zealand. Please click here to read it.

Author r744