Exclusive interview with John Skelton, Sainsbury's Head of Refrigeration

By Janaina Topley Lira, Mar 02, 2012, 00:00 6 minute reading

With Sainsbury’s having recently announced the opening of its 100th store equipped with transcritical CO2 refrigeration units, R744.com talks to John Skelton, Head of Refrigeration at Sainsbury's, about the British retailer's achievement and its committment to switching to CO2 refrigeration in all new stores by 2030. 

Sainsbury's is blazing a trail when it comes to CO2 transcritical installations, having reached 100 installations! Can you tell us the Sainsbury's CO2 story? How has the role of refrigeration within the Sainsbury's corporate strategy changed? What lessons have been learned?

John Skelton: There was at least five years worth of work involved in researching and trialling natural refrigeration systems prior to the company’s announcement in November 2009 to convert its entire estate by 2030. This included two trial stores and visits to other European countries to see manufacturers and commercial systems already in use in supermarkets.   
In Spring 2010 the first seven installations were completed in Sainsbury’s stores covering a new build extension and refurbishments in existing supermarkets. From the summer of 2010 onwards all new stores had CO2 installations as standard.  We installed or converted one system a week on average although we avoided peak trading periods at Christmas and Easter. Our new store at Ely, Cambridgeshire is the 100th CO2 installation and we estimate that there are now over 16,800 chilled and freezer cabinets connected to these systems with nearly 3 million customers using them. There are over 75 tonnes of CO2 in entrained volume which means compared to using R404a we are saving nearly 250,000 tonnes CO2e in these 100 stores. 
Training was a critical issue for us as we knew there was little experience within the UK for installing and servicing CO2 systems.  We invested in over 770 days training for the 200 service engineers that support our stores in collaboration with suppliers.  This included hands on training days in a supermarket on each of the different pack designs hosted and run by the manufacturers themselves. 
How has the role of refrigeration within the Sainsbury's corporate strategy changed?

John Skelton: I am extremely proud of the way my team and my suppliers stepped up to the challenge of delivering CO2 and the 100th store clearly demonstrates Sainsbury’s commitment to natural refrigerants.
“We have always known that refrigeration plays a key role in Sainsbury’s carbon emissions at a Technical Manager’s level but since the Natural Refrigerant announcement in 2009 it has become a key topic for the Company Board. Now refrigeration is considered as part of the company’s whole carbon footprint and not in isolation - a holistic approach is being taken. Up to September 2010 the roll out of CO2 had become “business as usual” and then a further step change was when it was integrated with ground breaking geothermal technology as part of the extension at Crayford, London. This was a world first and having been independently proved it delivers, Sainsbury’s completed a further five installations by the end of 2011. Recognition has been received for this innovative approach through winning national sustainability awards as well as in the UK 2011 Cooling Industry Awards. 
What improvements have been made during the programme?

John Skelton: Changes by one pack supplier have resulted in an 18% reduction in physical footprint for refrigeration plant installed in 2012 compared to the initial 2010 installations. This was achieved by improving the layout of the key components and has additional benefits of improving access for servicing components. The same supplier has designed out 1.8 tonnes of steel used per store installation. By delivering the pack housing and gas coolers separately the extra steel required for transport and lifting safely on to the roof is now no longer required. The modules are now joined on site, resulting in a savings of 900 kg steel/pack, plus reducing typical crane loading capacity required by 15%.
The original pilot of seven stores used three different pack designs and suppliers. This has been reduced to two although Sainsbury’s maintains an open invitation to other manufacturers to attend their regular review meetings. A concerted effort has been made over the last year to standardise components. Currently 60% of components are now common to both pack manufacturers – resulting in inventory reductions and potential cost savings.  
A move to agree and embed common graphics and labelling schemes across all diagrams, components and equipment for the two dominant systems is already making a difference. Additionally, critical components have been identified and are now stocked in the UK.

How long does each CO2 installation take? How do you manage to keep the stores open whilst the refit is in progress? 

John Skelton: Installation times are now the same as for R404a and with careful planning and phasing we can keep the stores open and ensure that disruption to the customers and store is kept to a minimum. We sometimes restrict access to certain areas during critical stages but we always try to keep the stores open for trading.
What has been your experience in terms of energy savings and reliability of transcritical CO2 systems?
John Skelton: So far the CO2 systems have proved to be energy neutral - much as we expected. In terms of reliability we have seen great improvements across the two year programme as you would expect from the introduction of any new technology. Sainsbury’s experience with CO2 has been no different - a concentrated learning curve over two years.  
Over the 100 installations we have seen a 5% reduction in installation time and capital costs which are due to specification changes. The significant improvement in reliability of parts and systems when coupled with right first time system commissioning have become core attributes for Sainsbury’s CO2 installations.  The evidence for this is a negligible difference in number of work orders raised compared to non CO2 systems and as such is in line with our expectations.
Why do you think Sainsbury's has had so much success with transcritical CO2? 
John Skelton: Undoubtedly this has been down to consistent collaboration between absolutely everyone involved in the programme. This included pack designers, designers of controls, training companies, service and maintenance contractors right through to our store managers and colleagues. Weekly conference calls with everybody involved in installations not only highlighted problems but created solutions which then could be used on the next store. It really was an example of continuous improvement.  
Where do you see the CO2 transcritical market going from here? What are the biggest challenges facing the CO2 transcritical sector in the coming months? 

John Skelton: There are still some major challenges facing this sector including maintaining and encouraging take up by other retailers and seriously addressing the cost challenge. Given that the technology has been around for quite some time it is surprising that the costs of equipment has not reduced further. Training is still an issue and it will take a while longer for service engineers to acquire the level of experience needed.
What impact do you think Sainsbury's 100th transcritical store will have on the industry? From the perspective of a UK retailer, what do you see as the main differences of regarding investment in CO2 transcritical compared to other EU retailers?
John Skelton: I believe that the milestone of Sainsbury’s 100th store with CO2 should clearly demonstrate our commitment to CO2 and will hopefully mean the supply chain will step up accordingly. We are looking for improvements to existing equipment and systems as well as technological innovation plus faster supply of components and the refrigerant itself. 
I don’t think we are any different to other EU retailers with regard to investment – we are all looking for commercially attractive, reliable and energy efficient refrigeration systems that offer a significant reduction in our operational carbon footprint.


By Janaina Topley Lira

Mar 02, 2012, 00:00

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