Refrigeration represents almost 10 percent of energy consumed in the entire US, yet there’s been very little innovation in the industry or technology to allow building operators to save money and energy. This is in stark contrast with other industrial processes, such as HVAC and lighting, which have seen significant gains in both efficiency and management controls.
Unlike refrigeration, effective measures can be taken to reduce HVAC and lighting costs manually. Building operators can dim the lights, turn down the thermostat, or shut off lighting after-hours. And innovations are allowing more and more of these processes to be automated, dynamically responding to external signals, like building load or occupancy. But refrigeration cannot be meddled with by energy managers. You just can’t let ice cream melt or let eggs get warm.
This has been a recurring theme throughout the years. A lot of innovation and investment has been put into in the realm of HVAC and lighting, but very little in the world of refrigeration, despite being a huge part of business operations and operating costs.
There are a few major catalysts when it comes to refrigeration innovation. Most of these pushes for change have been born from the simple need for technological advancements. For instance, current CO2 systems struggle in hotter climates - these “transcritical” systems require additional measures to function when the outdoor air temps rise above ~88 degrees, which drives up costs and reduces efficiency. Similarly, and in accordance with The Clean Air Act, the supermarket industry is facing new requirement to phase out their old refrigerants but are claiming that newer system options are too expensive.
Expenses seem to be the heart of the issue when it comes to cold storage. Refrigeration as a percentage of total supermarket costs has increased faster than all other categories. And with rising utility demand charges, combined with pressure to offer more fresh produce in smaller format stores, the sense of urgency for efficient and cost-effective solutions is reaching a fever pitch.
The Refrigeration Battery from Axiom Exergy is the latest example of how supermarkets, cold-storage facilities, and food processors can intelligently store and deploy refrigeration, with zero upfront cost and no utility interconnection costs.
These systems work by leveraging the store’s excess refrigeration system capacity at night to freeze tanks of salt water when energy costs are low. Then, when electricity prices soar during the afternoon, they “discharge” like any other battery, to provide cooling services for up to eight hours. As a result, stores can reduce their overall electricity demand on a daily basis, resulting in significant utility bill savings. In addition to daily load shifting, the technology can also be used for backup cooling- keeping perishable inventory fresh even when the power goes out.
A similar product is Rebound Technologies and their Plug IcePoint solution, which can also be placed into new or existing systems to boost performance via supplemental cooling. Similar to Axiom, their cooling is also stored at night and then released during peak hours.
Baltimore Aircoil is another notable company that’s assisting in modernizing industrial cooling. Their evaporative cooling systems use the same principle as perspiration to provide cooling for machinery and buildings. Their cooling towers are essentially heat-rejection devices, which discharges warm air from the cooling tower to the atmosphere through the cooling of water. This method can achieve up to 20% more cooling than other cooling towers.
Axiom Exergy and similar companies can be seen as enablers in the energy disaggregation trend that is occurring in the industry right now. All of these companies took steps to understanding how their partner buildings behaved, and created solutions that not only increased efficiency, but also allow building operators to effectively manage their refrigeration systems in a more active and dynamic way- lowering energy costs and increasing resiliency.
The next step is to make equipment intelligent by adding communications, remote control and, in some cases, key features and functionality that allow these assets to exhibit much greater flexibility and respond predictably to a myriad of inputs, such as energy pricing, weather, and usage patterns.
These advancements allow building operators to manage their entire building - HVAC, lighting, refrigeration and more - so that they are able to have a full-view of their operating expenses and energy savings. Finally we are starting to see real innovation in the refrigeration industry. With any luck, these forward thinking companies will be able to learn from- and build off of- the success of the HVAC and lighting industry.