Whole Foods Receives EPA Recognition For Eco-Friendly Foggy Bottom Location

Posted on November 1st, 2011 by

Kathy Loftus and Mark Hughes, of Whole Foods, discuss their reasoning for joining the EPA’s Green Chill Partnership Program and the approach they took to lowering CO2 emissions on their Foggy Bottom store.

Ben Lack: Whole Foods has recently received recognition from the EPA for having eco-friendly refrigeration in your Foggy Bottom location in Washington, DC. I wanted to get your thoughts on why Whole Foods sees value in becoming part of the Green Chill Partnership Program and what steps did you have to take to meet those standards?
Kathy Loftus: Back in 2007 we were already an EPA Energy Star partner and an EPA Green Power partner and we really enjoyed our work with those partnerships as we were able to network with other partners and get a lot of resources from the EPA consultants and a lot of information that helped us run our business more efficiently. But EPA came to us in 2007 and asked us if we would consider being a founding partner of a new program they have which is called the GreenChill Partnership Program and it was very intriguing to us because we all were aware, in the supermarket industry, that with the Montreal Protocol and the changing-out of some of the ozone depleting refrigerants that there were going to be some needs to test state of the art alternative refrigeration systems as well as figure out new refrigerants to use that would be lower ozone depleting. As well as trying to balance that with using refrigerants that didn’t have as high a global warming potential.So, we were excited to join on as a founding partner, I think we were the first partner to sign on actually and the goal for that was two-fold. Number 1, absolutely not build any new stores with ozone depleting refrigerants and when we were remodelling stores to change the refrigerant to a non ozone depleting refrigerant and then also assist the EPA by designing different refrigeration systems into our stores so that we could evaluate what other impacts those systems had. So, for example, we were looking at glycol systems for medium temperature instead of refrigerant. We were also looking at CO2 as a low temperature refrigerant and we were looking at distributed systems. But we were really trying to help get on the numbers, if you will, so that big industry could learn from our installations. So, those were the 2 goals, reduce ozone depleting substances and test and evaluate alternative refrigeration systems. So, we joined.
Ben Lack: Mark, your turn.
Mark Hughes: Basically, this was a very interesting project for us in the Foggy Bottom project. It was always slated by the city council to have a grocery store here and there were many other operators that were sitting at the table interested in coming to this location. Whole Foods was sitting at the table some 4 years ago and we helped foster the property and do some engineering to try and get the systems there. In the mean time, some of the other operators had advanced their negotiations and we weren’t at the table anymore. When we finally came back to the table we were extremely late in the game so we didn’t have as many options as we had in the beginning and distributed systems was the most practical means to achieve what we need.The distributed systems are basically placing the refrigeration racks very close to the loads and thereby reducing the refrigerant charge and then using water from a cooling tower to operate our condensing. We didn’t need big refrigerant loads to go to the roof. We used a cooling tower and water glycol system in a closed loop to achieve this lower refrigerant charge. It was basically coming to the dance late that pushed us to use the distributed systems and then we also tried to make use of taking the stranded heat generated by the refrigeration and turned around and helped the heat pumps operate in the winter time. So, we are using a combination of heat pumps and distributed refrigeration systems.
Ben Lack: And what’s the impact of taking this type of approach to the facility? How has that helped you save in CO2?
Mark Hughes: The distributed systems basically place the racks very close to the loads, so the freezer cases that you see downstairs could operate very quietly that just has enough refrigerant charge to run those cases. That’s the beauty of distributed systems in reducing the refrigerant charge.
Cathy Loftus: One thing as Mark mentioned is having that system designed so that the refrigerant is close to the load is one thing, but also when you design a system that has a lower charge, there’s less of it to leak. We all know in the supermarket industry it’s unfortunate but there are a number of reasons why we may have small emissions of refrigerant over the course of the year except when the equipment is in service. So, when you design a store to have lower refrigerant charge and have those piping loops run closer to the load, there’s much less of a chance of a leak; there’s a lower leak rate as it is. So, that’s how you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions because the refrigerant that gets emitted contributes to greenhouse gases.
Ben Lack: This strategy that you took in the Foggy Bottom store, is this the first time that you’ve taken this approach or has this approach worked in other stores as well?
Mark Hughes: It’s definitely working in other stores, it’s a proven system. The protocol systems have been out there probably, I’m going to guess, 12 to 15 years.
Kathy Loftus: Yes. What I would say though is what Mark did that’s unique and that we haven’t done in a lot of other stores or regions at least in Whole Foods’ market is, Mark utilized a plate to plate heat exchanger in that store’s design so the refrigeration and HVAC systems are somewhat coupled, so not only have we reduced greenhouse gas emissions by having a low charge refrigeration system, lower leak rate, we also have reduced greenhouse emissions because this system that he designed will save a ton of natural gas usage because  we will be using waste heat from the compressors to operate heat pumps which are highly efficient most of the year in that region. So, the engineers estimate that we are going to be saving a lot of b.t.u. and a lot of natural gas that would otherwise have been required for heating for that store.
Ben Lack: As you guys move forward and work on other locations, what’s next for you as you try to make these stores more sustainable and responsible about energy use?
Kathy Loftus: There’s a lot of great things that we have done over the past couple of years with leaders like Mark who are willing to go out on a limb with new designs and new ways of designing the stores, not only for energy efficiency and reduced refrigerant but also for other green building attributes and zero waste initiatives. We’ve got electric vehicle charging stations, we’ve got solar on many stores, Mark’s team is one of the first ones to purchase outright a PD system for the Princeton store. But, we’ve got solar on almost 20 locations now.We’ve got fuel cells at 4 and we are just about to start operating a generator at our North Atlantic region commissary that will run off of waste cooking oil from the stores and commissary in that region and that cooking oil is not actually transferred into a biodiesel. It’s literally just filtered and used as a fuel for this generator that will be operating on-site providing all the stores both heat and power and backup power. It’s a win-win for that community because the utility was transmission constrained and was thinking about having to build new feeders and eventually new power plants.So, what we try to do is take the stake-holder model approach where green emissions have always been at our core but we want to continue to grow and lead in areas like having green building certification, so we’ve got many LEED certified stores we’ve got several gold at this point. We also have Green Globe certified stores and many of those have 3 Green Globes which is equivalent to LEED gold so lots of our stores are being built to either LEED or Green Globe standards even if they don’t go through with the certification. But we feel that what’s new on the horizon is really looking at what makes sense in each community, designing the stores in the back of the house to be as efficient as possible with respect to zero waste goals and efficiency and day-lighting. There’s been a lot more day-lighting in the back of house because it’s not only is saving on lighting energy but it’s actually really good for the folks that work back there for productivity and efficiency.

We try to take this holistic approach where depending on where the building is located in the country. It may make sense to use the roof for day-lighting or solar or a combination of the 2. Or other types of analysis that we do to see what makes the most sense in that climate, in that region, what kinds of subsidies are available because often with the new technologies that are out there, it really makes sense for us to try those when there are some incentives. When the demand for that type of technology increases the costs will come down and then the incentives will no longer be available or necessary. But we do take this approach of really trying out lots of new technologies. In fact, we’ve just been presented with another one, a liquid desiccant HVAC retrofit option that we may test in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Lab and other tests for the labs out there like the University of California Davis. So, we really do try to work closely with all of our constituents and take this holistic model that really considers everything.

Ben Lack: Why have you chosen to spend your time doing what you’re doing and why does this work mean so much to you?
Mark Hughes: This is an unbelievably exciting area of technology and it’s changing everyday. There are so many different kinds of systems out there, it’s really interesting because you can get to choose and play with them and actually shift them around or mix them as a hybrid. So, you can take any number of approaches to the refrigeration HVAC and I don’t think there’s any other mark, even if it goes this way or that way, it’s wide open field and it’s pretty exciting.
Kathy Loftus: Coupled with the fact that there’s so much more information technology out there today and the information is at your fingertips much more quickly with the internet and with some sophisticated modeling and tools. The thing that really grabbed my attention years ago was when I started working in the buildings field and engineering field 20 years ago and seeing how architects got the bulk of the dollars to design a building and when it came down to the mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering, they were just really doing quick designs for cost reductions and not necessarily considering long term operating costs or what those energy or other impacts had on the environment.There are a couple of folks that I learned from early on that were willing to take and do some extra analysis and see what the long term benefits could be and just over the last 10 years has been leaps and bounds in being able to share that information and really start to look at how to design a building, not only for the lowest first cost but for the lowest long term operating costs and net impact on the environment. For me, it’s always been a passion about reducing resources that, waste kind of makes me crazy. I think Mark and I are cut from the same cloth in that respect.
Mark Hughes: There are so many systems out there. Twice or three times I tried to do the geothermal systems and I still with this company, they allow you to mess around with this stuff as long as you stay within your budgets, they really allow you to be an entrepreneur. Mark my words one of these days I will put in whether it’s a hybrid or something, I will put in a geothermal system. It’s just interesting, very interesting and exciting.

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