Sobeys set for life with CO2-only refrigeration system

By team, Jan 22, 2015, 17:44 5 minute reading

Sobeys, North America's leading user of CO2-only refrigeration, chose a future-proof natural solution to avoid having to ever retrofit its systems again. Yves Hugron, Sobeys Engineering Director, explains how they did it in Issue 3 of Accelerate America.

Fed up with the continuous uncertainty and regulation change over the past two decades with regards to the use of refrigerants, Sobeys - Canada’s second largest food retailer with 1,778 stores (852 of them franchised) - became the first company in North America to do something about it.

What Sobeys did was make transcritical refrigeration using only carbon dioxide – a natural refrigerant not subject to regulatory phaseouts – its standard system for new stores and major renovations.

Today Sobeys has over 63 stores using a CO2 transcritical system, and 15-20 stores opening every year with CO2, making it the de facto leader of transcritical installations in North America. Out of these, at least 10 are store renovations, which are always undertaken while the store is open. Sobeys never loses a day of sales in its transition to CO2.

How did Sobeys make the transition?

Sobeys started to take a keen interest in its refrigeration systems in 2008. The Montreal Protocol had long been in place and the retailer knew it would bring more change. HCFCs like R-22 were on the way out, and the future of HFCslooked uncertain.

The chain had already experienced the phaseout of ozone-depleting CFCs, and transitioned from R11 and R12 to HCFCs, the ‘new’ generation of synthetic refrigerants at the time that also harmed the ozone layer.

Now, the Montreal Protocol seems likely to once again phase out another ‘new’ generation of synthetic refrigerants, HFCs, which contribute significantly to global warming. So Sobeys’ engineers asked themselves: ‘Is it wise to jump on the bandwagon and do what everyone else is doing or should we invest in another generation of synthetic refrigerants?’

Lessons from Europe

The engineers at Sobeys decided it wasn’t and travelled to look at what was being done in the European Union, where the market for commercial CO2 transcritical refrigeration technology was rapidly developing.

Impressed by what the engineers had seen, Sobeys gathered them, as well as technicians and system manufacturers, in one room, and presented them with a new mandate. The retailer wanted to eliminate synthetic refrigerants from its estate in the long term and needed an alternative solution. Everyone in the room that day was asked: ‘What can you do to help us achieve our goal?’

Two manufacturers answered Sobeys’ call: Carnot and CSC

Both Carnot and CSC understood that CO2 was a refrigerant with enormous potential — and a GWP (global warming potential) of only one — and both were focused on developing CO2 technology. As a result, Sobeys worked closely with both manufacturers to develop a CO2 solution, and agreed to test the first Canadian-made CO2 systems in the field, in-store.

At the beginning there were not many subsidies to support Sobeys’ natural refrigerant endeavour. So it was the engineering department at Sobeys Quebec that acted as the driving force for investing in CO2. The other divisions of Sobeys were not fully convinced of the switch. Many thought the Quebec division was crazy.

However, the push for CO2 refrigeration was eventually transmitted to the CEO, after which the Quebec team had buy-in from the top management to ‘green’ the entire business. This has now started to filter through the different divisions. As a result, a CO2 system has now been installed in Maritime Canada, and another in Alberta

Why make the transition?

So why do it? With CO2, Sobeys would be set for life. "We didn't want to relive another phaseout, a "Montreal Protocol 3.0,” Hugron explained. “We were and are still in the middle of a "Montreal Protocol 2.0", already in phaseout mode, and we did not want to face the same thing again."

A Gradual Process

Today 85% of Sobeys Canada supermarkets still use R-22, and Hugron acknowledged: "We have a long way to go.”

In 2015 the retailer can no longer install new R-22 systems, and only 300,000 kilograms of R-22 will be made or imported (down 90% from 1996 levels). This affects all of Sobeys’ stores, including over 300 in Quebec. But all will eventually be switched to natural refrigerants.

Hugron thinks the transition to natural refrigerants will be accelerated by the disappearance of R-22. While he does not yet feel the pressure to switch all stores immediately, he is aware that the reduction in R-22 stocks will mean rising prices - some say exponentially - and that this will cause the replacement process to accelerate.

Initial challenges

The first CO2 supermarket stores were pioneers; each was a ‘live laboratory’ that had to contend with the problems that come with in-store testing. For example, in some stores the engineering team had to completely change the compressors.

Sobeys also faced a shortage of components in North America, including sourcing valves and plate heat exchangers for high-pressure CO2 applications. As a result, the retailer ended up working very closely with system and component manufacturers to fine- tune the nascent CO2 refrigeration technology.

Today’s CO2 commercial refrigeration technology

Today, the systems installed by Sobeys are very stable and reliable. These are still manufactured by Carnot, though new system manufacturers such as Systemes LMP and Hillphoenix have entered the market. CSC is no longer operating.

Hugron believes that system manufacturers in Quebec have a completely changed mindset. They are now more interested in manufacturing CO2 racks than in R507 or R407 racks. Some manufacturers have even gone so far as to stop manufacturing synthetic refrigerant racks completely.

Gradually, initial system costs have come down. In the early days a CO2 system, compared with a synthetic refrigerant system, would easily cost around 25%-30% more. The systems now cost the same, and in some cases CO2 systems are actually cheaper than traditional commercial refrigeration technologies using R-507.

Energy efficiency has also improved dramatically. This is very important given that refrigeration systems represents around 50% of a store's energy costs. Using current CO2 technology, Sobeys reduced its refrigeration energy costs by about 8% compared with traditional systems.

Read the full article and many more in Issue 3 of Accelerate America, PDF available for free download at


By team (@r744)

Jan 22, 2015, 17:44

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