Learning from Grocery Store Audits
Originally published November-December 2012
Refrigeration typically accounts for half of a grocery store’s energy expenditures. For many grocery stores in rural areas, installation of efficient refrigeration may prevent the store from going out of business.
Grocery store consolidation over the past two decades has resulted in the loss of many rural small town grocery stores. In 1976 Iowa had 1,920 grocery stores; in 2000 there were 911. The Iowa State University (ISU) Sociology Department has been studying this issue and its impacts. Researchers found that food infrastructure is an important component of rural social and economic well-being. Elderly and low-income households are disproportionately found in rural compared to more urban places, said Iowa State researchers. These at-risk populations have both nutritional adequacy and food insecurity problems that lead to poor health and well-being, ISU said.
Supermarkets are an essential retail business and a cornerstone of the community business districts, which draw rural residents for food and then other goods and services, ISU researchers said. The loss of grocery stores threatens economic stability, which is important for providing rural residential services and quality of life amenities that meet current expectations and seed future economic growth.
When grocery stores go out of business, the rural towns often become “food deserts.” A food desert is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as “a district with little or no access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet but often served by plenty of fast food restaurants or convenience stores.” The USDA also characterizes food deserts as a “low-income area where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than one mile from an affordable food store. In rural towns, the distance is 10 miles.”
Engineers from the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (IAMU) have been working with small towns to perform energy audits.
Seventeen small communities in Iowa received grant funding and carried out “whole town audits” to identify barriers and opportunities for energy efficiency, devise ways to overcome these barriers, carry out community energy education events and plan for specific improvements based on the outcomes of audits. The communities working with their electric utilities also received a portion of an APPA Demonstration of Energy Efficient Developments (DEED) grant, which was awarded to IAMU. The program has helped grocery stores specifically as they work to improve efficiency and reduce overhead expenses.
The communities in the project range in size from under 200 residents to just over 1,500 residents. Median age in these communities ranges from 35 to 45 years old, reflecting an aging population. Median household income ranges from $29,000 to $56,000, while median house values range from $42,000 to $110,000. Five of these communities have greater than 10 percent of their population below the poverty threshold of $11,161 for an individual or $21,756 for a family of four.
IAMU’s whole town audit program looks comprehensively at utility rate structures, community infrastructure, commercial usage, residential usage, municipal usage, local resources and demographic trends in each community. Based on observations and analysis of all of these factors, recommendations are made and programs are tailored to each community. The whole town audit concept is designed to collect baseline energy use in a community, identify limiting factors for implementing energy efficiency, perform comprehensive town audits to identify opportunities, and assist communities in selecting cost-effective energy efficiency programs.
These small Iowa communities are facing the challenges associated with aging population and aging infrastructure, said Anne Kimber, director of energy services for IAMU. Fifty percent of Iowa’s 136 municipal electric utilities serve less than 800 meters.
“Grocery stores became one of our favorite businesses to work with, because they are so vital to these communities,” Kimber said. “Their profit margins are very tight, and there is so much refrigeration in use. As a result, we can offer quite a few useful recommendations, which really helps them remain profitable.”
“Grocers’ number one priority is to keep the refrigeration system operating properly so that merchandise stays properly cooled. Energy efficiency has typically been overlooked or an afterthought during system maintenance” said Joel Logan, IAMU’s energy services engineer.
Refrigeration on average makes up 51percent of a grocery store’s energy expenditures. “Because refrigeration makes up the majority of the energy cost at grocery stores, it provides significant potential for reducing energy costs through retrofits. Rural grocery stores tend to have older refrigeration equipment that was built to be reliable, but isn’t as energy efficient as newer equipment. While replacing the existing equipment with new energy efficient equipment, there are many retrofits that can be performed on the existing equipment that can save significant energy and improve performance,” Logan said. “As we have worked with grocers, they have been pleased to learn about the many smaller retrofits they can make to their existing system to save energy and reduce operating costs. These measures require a much smaller capital expenditure than replacing the system, but taken together can have significant impact on the energy use and performance of the system,” Logan said.
The Stratford Food Center, in Stratford, Iowa, has benefited from IAMU’s audit process and recommendations. The Food Center is the community’s solution to grocery store consolidation. The local businesses and citizens of Stratford combined efforts and raised over $100,000 to start their own grocery store. In Stratford, all of the coolers used in the store were purchased from a grocery store that had gone out of business. They were inefficient, resulting in higher energy costs and lower profits. IAMU’s audit of the Stratford Food Center uncovered a variety of savings opportunities. Inefficient T12 fluorescent bulbs were among the most significant energy users. Lighting measures recommended would save approximately $2,261 annually. In addition, recommended measures included upgrading the cooling system, as well as the installation of strip curtains, night cover, and controls. Overall, the auditor recommendations created an energy savings of 52,201 kWh or $6,363 in reduced overhead expenses. The city applied for and received an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block grant, which will help fund the T8 replacement lights. IAMU has also recommended programmable thermostats and increased roof insulation to the grocers to help them conserve energy.
The Graettinger Market, in Graettinger, Iowa, a small public power town with approximately 900 residents, also participated in the audit program. The market is owned by the Graettinger Economic Development Committee (GEDC), which requested an energy audit of the store to identify areas where energy cost savings could be obtained. In the 12-month period from July 2010 through June 2011, the store paid $14,586 for electricity and $47 for gas.
Since the store installed a system to recover heat from the refrigeration system for space heating, it uses little to no gas. The store uses electricity for refrigeration, lighting, water heating, cooling, ventilation, vending machines, and miscellaneous plug loads. Once again, the refrigeration system is the largest component of the energy use, and IAMU recommended that initial energy efficiency efforts focus on improving the refrigeration system.
IAMU also had a number of other recommendations for the Graettinger Market.
• Retrofitting the fluorescent lighting in the freezers will save $3,800 over the life of the LED lamps.
• Strip curtains for walk-in coolers will cost $180, and save $320 each year.
• Anti-sweat heater controls will cost $85 to $100 per door. The total estimated annual savings is $1,204 and the total estimated installation cost is $1,445.
• Night cooler covers would provide an annual savings of $200 and have an estimated installation cost of $1,120.
• Evaporator fan motors would provide an annual savings of $1,238 and have an estimated installation cost of $4,650.
• Cooler door seals and automatic closers were also recommended.
• A vending machine controller was recommended and would provide $240 in annual savings and would cost $180 to install.
• A lighting update to T8 lamps would provide $250 in annual savings and would cost $1,535 to install.
• Replacement of the weatherstripping on front door was also recommended.
These community-owned grocery stores benefit people in much the same way their public power utilities do. Just as small rural communities met the electricity needs of their residents when it was not profitable for investor-owned utilities to serve them, these same communities are working together to solve problems and improve their quality of life. These community-owned stores are also a source of pride and keep more local grocery dollars in the community.
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