The green refrigerator, which has been locked in cold storage since 1992, has finally found a manufacturer -- GE -- that is willing to start production for the North American market, but it remains unclear just how soon it will be ready for widespread consumer adoption. The technology is in widespread use in the rest of the world.
GE announced plans this week to release the first climate-friendly refrigerator available to North American households. The refrigerator, which is in development for introduction in 2010, will employ "GreenFreeze" technology to eliminate the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), harmful greenhouse gases with 1,400 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide. Greenpeace helped develop the GreenFreeze technology back in 1992.
GreenFreeze refrigerators use hydrocarbon refrigerants instead of HFCs. Major manufacturers -- Whirlpool, Bosch, Haier, Panasonic, LG, Miele, Electrolux, Siemens -- have used GreenFreeze to manufacture refrigerators embraced by households abroad. Some 300 million of the world's refrigerators now employ the hydrocarbon technology: in Europe, Japan, China, Australia, South America -- everywhere except North America.
So how come it's taken so long to bring GreenFreeze here?
Well, it's never been legal before. When I asked Kert Davies, a Research Director at Greenpeace, why not, he said "too many lawyers per capita" and referred me to a dizzying, Kafkaesque flow chart of the EPA's "Promulgation Process."
The Promulgation Process, a set of guidelines created by the EPA's SNAP (Significant New Alternatives Policy) Program to approve alternatives to the ozone-depleting substances being phased out by the Clean Air Act, is "anything but a snap," says Davies. There has been interest in the technology before, he says, but when those involved saw this chart, they said: why bother? GE is the first manufacturer to be bothering, and the production of its HFC-free refrigerator, which will use isobutane as a refrigerant and cyclopentane as an insulation foam-blowing agent, instead of HFCs, is still contingent upon SNAP's approval of the green substitutes.
Just how much marketing muscle GE is willing to put behind its green fridge remains unclear. During a conference call with Kim Freeman, GE Director of Public Relations, and Kelley Klein, of GE's Counsel-Regulatory division, I was told that widespread incorporation of the technology into the company's line of refrigerators still "depends on a lot of things." According to a press release, GE hopes to include isobutane and cyclopentane in a new Monogram-brand refrigerator scheduled for introduction in early 2010, but when I asked how many refrigerators GE will produce in 2010, and how much they will cost, there was a pause before I heard things like "not sure we have that" and "not that far in the process" as Klein and Freeman conferred and spoke obliquely of a 42-inch model (perhaps the one from their press release, pictured at the top of this article?).
For GreenFreeze technology to make a substantial impact on global warming it will have to be widely adopted. Monogram is GE's line of high-end refrigerators, and though Freeman and Klein spoke of GE's belief in "the potential of these sorts of products" and eagerness to "let know consumers know they have this option," there doesn't seem to be an extensive marketing plan for the fridges.
But if GE succeeds in gaining EPA approval, they will have made it easier for other manufactuers to follow suit. What's more, GE's consumer fridge is really the latest step in a wider Greenpeace-led effort to bring "green" refrigeration to the U.S. This includes a collaboration between Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Unilever to create HFC-free vending machines, display cases, and beverage coolers, and has resulted in the recently-announced plan by Ben & Jerry's to install the country's first HFC-free freezers.