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And Now for Some Good News—Really

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At TrackerNews, we have long mulled adding a tagline to our masthead: “One Damn Thing After Another…” But every now and again, we come across stories that gives us hope. The tale of “Greenfreeze” refrigeration technology is one them: a better, more energy efficient answer to cooling and a successful environmental / industry collaboration. Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics operation in Milwaukee, is another one of our favorites—one we have been following closely for nearly a year and a half.  —Ed.

“When we ring the siren, at some point we do bring the ambulance,” says Amy Larkin, director of Greenpeace Solutions, the environmental organization’s lesser-known division that works with industry to find and implement climate-friendlier answers. We recently caught up with Larkin, and her colleague, engineer Claudette Juska, after they taped an NPR Worldview interview here in Chicago. Their focus: F-gases, a.k.a. “the worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of.”

If you have ever used a refrigerator, flicked on an air-conditioner or strolled the freezer aisle in a grocery store in the U.S., you are guilty-by-unavoidable-association of helping to warm the world through F-gas-driven cooling.

It is a very big deal. F-gases account for 17% of the world’s global warming impact, says Larkin. “That’s not annual emissions. That’s cumulative impact.” In other words, they tend to hang around in the atmosphere. The story gets even more jaw-dropping when when you learn that not only are there alternatives, but they been tested and used by hundreds of millions of people in other countries for the last 20 years.

What gives?

In 1992, F-gases called CFCs—chlorofluorocarbons—were banned by the Montreal Protocol after it was discovered that they had punched a hole on the planet’s ozone layer. The chemical industry’s alternative? HFCs—hydroflurocarbons. Although these don’t harm the ozone layer, they still have the “F”—fluorine—a potent greenhouse gas.

Never ones to sit on their hands, in 1993, Greenpeace activists in Germany set about getting a prototype refrigerator built to prove there was another way around the problem using “natural refrigerants” such as isobutane. Then they tried to drum up some interest from manufacturers. Nada. Remarkably undaunted, they then pre-sold 70,000 non-existent refrigerators. As Larkin notes, this was way before Facebook and Twitter were even a glimmer on the cyber-horizon (indeed, Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers…). Greenpeace went back to the manufacturer of the prototype, who was now happy beyond happy to ramp up a production line. The technology was open-sourced, so now all the major manufacturers make them, too.

Today, hundreds of millions of “Greenfreeze” refrigerators have been sold. Although comparable in cost to HFC models, they are much more efficient, so cheaper to run, too. Still, they remain illegal in the U.S. “The natural refrigerants do not have lobbyists,” explains Larkin. “The chemical industry does.”

But the rules may change soon, due in large part to Greenpeace-mediated industry pressure. Coca-Cola, Unilever, McDonald’s, Carlsbad Group and Pepsico banded together with Greenpeace and UNEP to form Refrigerants, Naturally!, to promote the use of climate-friendlier technologies, including regulatory and political frameworks to encourage investment.

Wal-Mart is also sold on the technology, even making improvements improvements and sharing its data. After electricity, refrigeration and cooling rank #2 on the company’s carbon footprint list. Says Larkin:

Large businesses like to have certainty, like to plan, like to see where they’re going to make a profit, like to see where they’re going to get hammered, like to see the regulation down the road and if they can, avoid a regulatory problem or a big, costly mess that they didn’t anticipate… (If they can make) a product that is more efficient, less costly in terms of energy for themselves or their customers, generally, they will be on our side.

…Part of the reason that businesses like to share this is that when all of the retailers and all of the ice-cream makers transfer their technology at the same time, you can achieve economies of scale.

The EPA and Underwriters Laboratory are currently reviewing safety issues—natural refrigerants are flammable—but given the global track record, it is possible that the first consumer Greenfreeze refrigerators will be available in the U.S. sometime in 2011. And that’s just plain cool.

NOW, WHAT TO PUT IN THE FRIDGE….

Another of our favorite stories here at TrackerNews is fast becoming a favorite story with everybody: Sweet Water Organics, the Milwaukee-based aquaponics start-up inspired by Will Allen’s urban agriculture work. They were recently featured in the New York Times (“Fish Farms, with a Side of Greens”) and on NBC’s Nightly News:

Although some of the facts have gotten a bit sanded for TV—this is not yet a completely closed loop system, but getting there, which is what’s exciting—the progress over the last 16 months has been nothing short of astonishing. When we first walked into the Sweet Water warehouse, just a few blocks from the expressway on the southwest side of town, it was empty, save for three newly-dug fish “raceways,” water burbling away, waiting to be stocked and some wooden structures holding a few dozen basil plants.

Today, every surface is bursting with life. The crops—mostly lettuce—are thriving, as are fish, by the tens of thousands. Staff and volunteers bustle about, while a steady stream of visitors tour the operation, eyes wide, taking notes. The learning curve has been both steep and, delightfully, endless. Tilapia are being phased out in favor of perch, which turn out to be more in tune with Wisconsin palates. New filters and bubblers are being tested to reduce sediment levels, while keeping water a nice perch-preferred degree of murky. Hoop houses are under construction in the courtyard. New vertical planting pots are being put through their paces. Even mulch has gone artisanal in this unique workshop / lab.

There is a palpable sense that something important and potentially world-changing is happening here. It is a story we will continue to follow closely. Stay tuned…

One Response

  1. Greenpeace certainly deserves great credit for their outstanding work in dragging US regulators and industry into line with the rest of the world on this most obvious application for hydrocarbon refrigerants.

    The actions of the US fluorolobby (broadly defined…) in delaying market access to natural refrigerants such as hydrocarbons and CO2, and continuing to frustrate the development of genuinely climate friendly natural refrigerant solutions in favor of newly emerging patented fluorochemicals with uncertain environmental impacts and studiously underplayed flammability and toxicity risks are nothing short of scandalous. This story should stand in history as a shocking case study in the abuse of corporate power at the expense of future generations.

    Now that progress is finally being made on the least emissive refrigerated technologies, the next question must become this – how much longer will it take for US regulators to recognise that North America leads the world in the volume of hydrocarbon refrigerant being used in the most highly emissive refrigerated applications, Mobile Air Conditioning Systems? After more than 15 years of safe and reliable use of hydrocarbons, surely it is time for the hydrocarbon industry to seek legitimacy in the US?

    As Greenpeace has shown, with truth on your side, you don’t need to spend anywhere near as much on lobbyists to win against those who would put profit before our planet.

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