At the heart of Düsseldorf-based METRO AG’s emission reduction strategy is its pioneering F-Gas Exit Program, which will see the company phase out f-gases by 2025 – replacing them with natural refrigerants in all stores worldwide (where technically feasible). 

Ranked on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index as the best-performing company in its sector in 2015, METRO AG is recognised globally as an environmental leader. Olaf Schulze, Director (Energy and Management) is charged with overseeing the switch from f-gases to natural refrigerants. Under his leadership the company has already introduced natural refrigerants at eight distribution centres including over 34 CO2 transcritical systems at Cash and Carry stores in Germany, France, Poland, Romania and Spain. 

In our internal processes sustainability is a major driver for us,” Schulze explains. “We are internalising sustainability into more and more products we are selling, into our behaviour with our customers, and with our employees.”

With great power comes great responsibility 

METRO was founded in 1964 in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. Today, it operates some 2,200 stores in 30 countries, including METRO/MAKRO Cash & Carry stores, Real hypermarkets, and consumer electronics stores Media Markt and Saturn. 

With sales in 2014/2015 of around €59 billion, METRO is one of the biggest retail groups in the world. Its status as a global player comes with certain responsibilities. One of these, according to Schulze, is the obligation to be a technology front-runner. “We have to use our strengths, such as our internationality and our first-mover mentality, to pilot and test new technologies.” 

Hence METRO has placed environmental sustainability and energy efficiency at the core of its business. It also regularly investigates alternatives to traditional technologies, seeking to drive technology change rather than follow it. 

This ambition led the company to pilot its first CO2 refrigeration installation in a store in Hamburg, Germany, in 2008. With refrigeration responsible for more than 20% of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, METRO AG was eager to find a way to reduce this negative environmental impact. 

Two years later, METRO publicly committed to the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) pledge to begin phasing out climate-damaging HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) in 2015 by publishing plans to use only natural refrigerants in new refrigeration equipment installations. 

First-of-its-kind Exit Program to phase out f-gases 

Introduced in July 2013, the F-Gas Exit Program’s priority is to replace existing refrigeration equipment with natural refrigerant technology. 

At an estimated €1 billion, the F-Gas Exit Program ranks among the METRO Group’s biggest investment plans. The scale of the investment underlines the company’s commitment to natural refrigerants. To help maintain ‘business as usual’, it introduces state-of-the-art refrigeration technology when current equipment nears the end of its life. For METRO, state-of-the-art and modern means using natural refrigerants. 

Deciding where to begin exchanging refrigeration systems, however, was a difficult task. After taking into account refrigerant type, system age, leakage rate, depreciation status and equipment location, the Group plans to replace f-gas equipment with natural refrigerant solutions in 58 stores in 2016, 62 stores in 2017, and 37 stores in 2018. By 2025, Schulze estimates that METRO will have stopped using f-gases in around 90% of its stores. “We are on track to open, on average, 50 natural refrigerant stores every year,” he says. 

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions – with natural refrigerants 

Refrigerant losses are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and a significant cost factor for the company. With METRO aiming to reduce emissions from refrigerant losses by 29% by 2020, proper equipment upkeep is essential. 

For any international company, one challenge in switching to new technology is having qualified technical support on the ground. Another challenge for METRO is the negative impact of high ambient temperatures on the efficiency of CO2 refrigeration technology. 

For the Group to successfully switch to naturals, the newly adopted technology must operate efficiently in every country in which METRO operates. The latest CO2 refrigeration innovations, which include parallel compressions and ejectors, are making this transition possible. 

Schulze is enthusiastic about the future. “Who knows what the technology will look like in 2025. We may not be talking about ejectors anymore, but another new, cutting-edge technology. Whatever it is, we hope to be the front-runner when it comes to using the next generation of this technology.” 

Whilst discussions with international partners on how to transition to natural refrigerants have largely been fruitful, Schulze says the company has encountered opposition. “We sometimes encounter technical resistance from local governments. As a result, it is not possible for us to select from all of the available natural refrigerant solutions. Our options are narrowed, forcing us to focus on one technology.” 

To overcome this, METRO works with local associations and trade unions to drive regulatory change. It also invests in pilot installations to prove the safety and efficiency of different natural refrigerant technologies. 

The future is natural 

METRO’s faith in natural refrigerant technology is rock solid. “We know that we can bring this technology to Russia, India or China,” says Schulze. The challenge lies in convincing store operators that natural refrigerant solutions are reliable and competitively priced. “For this, we have to convince people that this technology is widely available, produces the same cooling quality, and will not result in higher operating costs.” 

Could the decision to use natural refrigerants, and in particular CO2 transcritical refrigeration, change? Not according to Schulze. “As a result of our efforts, I am confident that this decision is irreversible.” 

This article is based on a longer version produced by Janaina Topley Lira & Nina Masson for the Winter 2015 edition of Accelerate Europe. To read the full article, click here.

Author r744