The activist group’s anti-HFC campaign featured polar bears – a symbol of global warming’s impact on the environment, as well as an iconic emblem of Coke’s own advertising. 

In response, Doug Daft, Coca-Cola’s chairman at the time, set the company on a journey to become HFC-free in its commercial refrigeration units. A few years later in 2004, Coke became a founding member with Greenpeace of Refrigerants, Naturally!, a non-profit dedicated to helping companies transition from HFCs to natural refrigerants. Thus began an unlikely partnership between Greenpeace and the world’s largest beverage company that has resulted in a major shift in the way soft drinks are cooled around the globe.  

Fast-forward to November 2009: After spending $50 million in search of a climate-friendly cooling technology, Coke, now under the leadership of chairman Muhtar Kent, announced a global goal to phase out the use of HFCs in all new cold drink equipment by 2015. Shortly thereafter, the Consumer Goods Forum, with Kent serving as co-chair, declared that all of its retailer and manufacturer members would begin phasing out HFC refrigerants as of 2015.

As of June 2014, Coke had installed 1.1 million HFC-free units – including more than 12,000 in North America – most of them using carbon dioxide as the company’s non-HFC, natural refrigerant of choice. Some equipment employs the hydrocarbon refrigerant propane, but 230 models are now certified for CO2, which Coke is using in many of its units going forward.  

Over the past year, the growth of COdeployment in North America has jumped from almost nothing to about one-third of new equipment purchases. In addition, the number of HFC-free units worldwide has grown to 1.4 million.

With 20% annual growth in the number of CO2 units, Coca-Cola expects by the end of 2015 to achieve its HFC-free goal for all new cooling equipment – a major environmental accomplishment that puts the Atlanta-based beverage giant in the front rank of companies using natural refrigerants.

For Coke, poised to remake the commercial refrigeration marketplace, it’s been an extraordinary journey. How did it get here? And why did it choose CO2? To find out more, Accelerate America sat down with Tomas Ambrosetti, global program director of the eKOfreshment program, which is responsible for the transition to HFC-free refrigeration; and Steven Cousins, equipment quality manager, Coca Cola global quality, safety and environment.

Making the Transition

Accelerate America: How did Coke get started on this journey?

Tomas Ambrosetti: Doug Daft, our chairman, made the original commitment at the Sydney Olympics that we would be HFC-free. Many years later, in 2009, as we were progressing through and researching technologies, Muhtar Kent, our current chairman, made the follow-up commitment to be HFC-free by the end of 2015. This is a commitment and a position the company has had for probably longer than most companies in the industry. We’ve learned a lot along the way.

Steven Cousins: When Doug Daft made his original commitment, he didn’t know and we didn’t know what HFC-free solution it was going to be. We investigated a number of technologies. We looked at thermo-acoustics quite a bit and spent a great deal of effort looking at helium as a refrigerant. But helium wasn’t scalable – it worked for less than half of our equipment portfolio. We wanted a single solution that would work everywhere, from a small countertop cooler to a big triple-door unit in a big-box retail store.

TA: That’s why Coke chose CO2 as its preferred refrigerant. We were looking for one portfolio solution that gives us economies of scale.  CO2 is what best fits our system, best fits our portfolio and we believe it’s the most sustainable solution for us in the future. We probably have more experience in this space than most others in the industry. Grocery stores are moving to CO2; auto manufacturers are considering CO2 or HFOs. Japan’s been using CO2 for more than 10 years. It’s a 100% proven technology. We have proof point after proof point.

AA: Why did it take Coke so many years to come to a decision on CO2?

TA: You need to balance sustainable types of initiatives with the business. You need to do it in a very commercial, sustainable way and not spend huge amounts of money on something you can’t sustain over the long term. We’re finally hitting the inflection point — after all of the years of research — of creating the supply chain. We’re finally at a place where we’ve proven the technology and created enough scale that our system’s going to go forward in a big way. It’s taken that much time to achieve that.

AA: Do you have a personal motivation, too, in helping to change the market in North America change?

TA: Absolutely. I think I’ve got the coolest job in the Coca-Cola system. We’re implementing a technology that’s not easy, that puts a lot of pressure on the system. But I absolutely believe that what we’re trying to do here potentially leaves the world in a better place than we found it. I think there’s a social responsibility to doing some of this. I have a lot of passion for what I do. It’s not unlike our PlantBottle; it’s got similar challenges. But it’s a key part of the sustainability strategy of The Coca-Cola Company, and I’m very fortunate to be part of it.

Working with OEMs

AA: Are you helping OEMs convert to CO2?

TA: It’s no surprise we’re providing a lot of support because if you design equipment with R134a knowledge and think you can design CO2 equipment, you will fail miserably. We see that all the time. So we’re spending a lot of time even this year visiting each of these suppliers to see where they are in their design maturity and see if we can provide some insight to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

In the future, when we require CO2-based equipment, we’ll buy from the ones that are ready. They have to be more energy efficient and give it to me in CO2. That’s what we expect. And it’s doable. I would tell you that 80% of the 230 models we have certified in CO2 are more energy efficient than legacy models – and we’re working with the other 20% to being them up.

The Impact of Regulations

AA: How have regulations in the U.S. – both the EPA’s SNAP (Significant New Alternatives Policy) proposal and the Department of Energy’s new 2017 efficiency requirements – changed the way people are viewing natural refrigerants?

TA: We appreciate what the EPA is trying to do – trying to phase out R134a. We think it’s accelerated the conversation. There’ a lot of pressure now on our OEMs and us to move in that direction. The flip side to that is if you’re not ready, you can run into some trouble. It may generate significant costs in the system; there’s a lot of angst about what that might do to your business. So we’re highly supportive of what the EPA is trying to do but we need help to be commercially viable in getting there. That’s the feedback we’re providing to the EPA.

What About Hydrocarbons?

AA: At the recent NAFEM Show in Anaheim, most of the talk was about hydrocarbons replacing HFCs. Do you think you’re going against the grain with CO2?

TA: It’s no mystery that Coca-Cola was using hydrocarbons early on. But the more we learned about its capabilities and CO2’s capabilities, we found CO2 provides us a much better solution across the whole portfolio.

I wonder whether folks who are deciding to move to hydrocarbons are where we were in the journey 10 years ago. I fundamentally believe we made the right decision to go with CO2, for many, many reasons. The decision continues to reinforce itself the more we learn and move forward. I don’t waver from it in any way just because the industry is moving [towards hydrocarbons].

SC: When you look at the whole landscape of HFC-free on the commercial/industrial side, I think there’s a lot of learning yet to happen. This is not just with CO2, but with hydrocarbons and across the board, and that’ll happen over the next five to 10 years. As our partners learn, they’ll be making adjustments. Because of that, the future for CO2 refrigeration is brighter than some might project right now.

AA: Thanks for your time Tomas and Steven, and good luck!


Accelerate America Issue #4

Author jamesranson