When it comes to streamlining energy operations, convenience stores are leaning more on technology.
By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Editor
At the Krakow Store, a privately-held convenience retail company, a 20-by-12-by-8-foot walk-in beer cave at its location in Washington, Mo. generates regular customer traffic.
When the owners added evaporator efficiency controllers inside, the company eventually realized a 19.2% monthly energy savings in this part of the store. The estimated payback period on the investment was 1.6 years, but just 1.05 years with a rebate from utility Ameren Missouri.
The Krakow Store controller retrofit represents just one example of the countless opportunities for improvements in energy efficiency possible in convenience stores. So said Nancy Kelly, managing engineer with Minneapolis-based Michaels Energy, an engineering consulting company focused on all aspects of energy efficiency.
On a per-square-foot basis, convenience stores use more energy than any other type of commercial building, according to Kelly.
“It’s all electric, and when it is that intense, there are a lot of opportunities for improvement, particularly in lighting,” Kelly reported, adding that most c-stores keep exterior lights lit 24 hours a day, and some still have old-school fluorescent tube lighting in reach-in coolers. Many need energy-conscious enhancements in their overhead lighting and in their anti-sweat heaters within the cooler windows.
In a state-wide research project evaluating opportunities at 50 Minnesota c-stores three years ago, Michaels Energy found the stores could save 21% on average through lighting, anti-sweat heaters and other improvements, Kelly said.
Switching to LED lighting represents low-hanging fruit for convenience stores. Julia Raish, division leader at sustainability consulting firm Paladino and Co., said installing energy-efficient outdoor LED lighting saves energy and money, improves aesthetics and adds to customers’ sense of safety, which can enhance profitability.
Advanced LED systems even integrate cameras and motion sensors, which can be monitored by managers through mobile devices, the Seattle-based Radish said.
LEADING THE WAY
Atlanta-based RaceTrac is a leader in convenience store energy efficiency, having last year completed an LED lighting rollout to all its stores.
“RaceTrac’s Energy and Sustainability team is incredibly excited, as we have just begun installing Energy Management Systems (EMS) at more than 420 RaceTrac store locations,” said Colin Block, the company’s senior analyst of energy and sustainability.
EMS is a computer-based system that allows real-time, controllable access to store-level operations, including thermostat set points, lighting controls and alerts.
EMS controls devices throughout each RaceTrac store to improve operational efficiency at the store level, Block explained. Improved management of store operations leads to bottom-line energy savings, whether from better management of store temperature set points or improved awareness of employee operations that impact energy usage at the store, such as accidentally leaving freezer doors open.
“From our computers, the Energy and Sustainability team is able to remotely adjust thermostat set points throughout the store based on the needs of our guests and RaceTrac team members,” Block said. “Similarly, our team can adjust the temperature set points of our walk-in coolers and freezers, based on capacity or current needs. Indoor and outdoor lighting can also be remotely managed.”
The Energy and Sustainability team at RaceTrac also worked with the company’s Store Support team to create operational improvement protocols.
For instance, “if a walk-in cooler or exterior door is left open unnecessarily, an email alert will be sent out in order to monitor and track how our stores are performing in terms of operational efficiency,” Block said.
At RaceTrac, one of the primary factors leading to the installation of EMS was the desire for cost reductions flowing from operational efficiency improvements. Another was the ability to gain greater control over overall store-level energy management, Block said.
The ability to control its systems at a portfolio level allows RaceTrac greater optimization of energy management and a reduction in what the chain terms operational waste.
“The Energy and Sustainability team is incredibly excited about this rollout and not just because of the energy savings potential,” Block said. “EMS will help to make a number of our current operations more efficient and less time intensive, letting our team members focus even more on providing store guests a great RaceTrac experience.”
Money saved by using such controllers doesn’t just come from reduced energy usage. There are also cost savings resulting from avoiding the food spoilage that can occur when doors to refrigeration units are inadvertently left open, Kelly said.
As for LED lighting, beyond the more obvious efficiencies, there are two more ways the technology can boost c-store bottom lines. The first results from the fact that they don’t involve costly disposal of tubes that incorporate mercury, Kelly said. “The final thing that’s a cool selling point for LED lights is that many people like the idea that LED lights make their products look better,” Kelly added. “They like the quality of the light.”
In other words, LED not only saves money, but helps sell more items.
The investment in energy-saving technology can be considerable, especially for larger chains with many stores, Kelly said. To offset those investments, c-store chains can seek rebates from energy utilities.
“What gets difficult for big chains is they have to talk to all the utilities involved in providing them energy. And in a typical state, they might be dealing with several utilities,” Kelly said. “In Minnesota, for instance, we have all these different little co-ops; there could be a hundred of them around the state . . . [Chains] need to go and talk to their utilities and tell them they have energy-mitigating projects they want to implement and [ask], ‘Is there a rebate available?’”
Bringing tech advancements to energy efficiency is an ongoing process at the nation’s leading convenience store chains. And for some retailers, such as RaceTrac, state-of-the-art technology helping ensure the quest for efficiency is almost unlimited.
“The Energy and Sustainability team has focused a number of our initiatives on reduction of energy impacts in order to reduce our utility spend. We are now moving to look at our water usage impact with the same rigor,” Block said. “Our team will be rolling out a number of water efficiency initiatives in the coming months, including smart irrigation and tank-less water heaters.”
In the years ahead, convenience store chains should never have to heat their individual locations, which should result in considerable energy savings, Kelly noted.
Because the stores are continually extracting heat from refrigeration and cooling units, it will eventually be possible to repurpose the extracted heat, using it to both heat store interiors and heat water. “They should be able to move heat around from one area to another,” Kelly said. “That’s the next big thing for these guys.”