During the COVID pandemic, the need to find efficiencies in how businesses operate has become more important than ever, as many companies struggle just to keep their doors open.

Adding energy efficiencies is not only good for the environment, it’s also good for the bottom line.

In the past few years, there has been a greater shift to commissaries supporting retail grocers, similar to the convenience store model, said Jeremy Klysen, business development manager for Kansas City, Mo.-based construction engineering company Burns & McDonnell.

Efficiency has been a big reason why.

“There has been a growing need to switch to that model to increase efficiency,” he said. “When you consolidate food preparation for several stores into one commissary, the end product becomes more consistent and quality control is improved, since products come from a single location.”

When businesses transition to that model, they’re also increasing their space within an existing store, so there’s no longer a need to expand the store footprint, added Bryan Allen, a Burns & McDonnell project manager.

The firm is seeing larger third-party warehouses pushing more toward automation to better match up against the retail market. These strides to automate, Klysen said, also help improve energy and other efficiencies.

Many lighting systems are now powered by LED and are motion-activated, Allen said. When walking through a grocery store, for instance, reach-in cases are often dim until you walk by, thus improving energy efficiency.

“While using LED and motion-sensitive lighting isn’t a new concept, it’s become a lot more affordable throughout the past 10-15 years, so it is employed across a broader spectrum of facilities,” Allen said.

Compressors or cases used to hold foods are usually a lower priority when it comes to energy efficiency, as greater emphasis is placed on labor efficiency and capital investment, Klysen said.

However, there is a stronger push to switch to carbon dioxide and glycol systems for refrigeration within compressors, as both systems are natural refrigerants and more energy efficient.

In terms of carbon dioxide systems, Burns & McDonnell is seeing a switch from giant refrigeration racks to increased numbers of point-of-use condensers, which allow for greater flexibility in load and greater control of identifying potential issues — such as  leaks — and resolving them quickly.

“Additionally, a goal for many stores is to keep compressors and cases frost-free,” Allen said. “To mitigate that risk, there is a focus on dehumidification within stores, which requires evaluating outside air units and how they work with refrigeration equipment.”

Many stores have large loading docks in the back of the facility, directly connected to the building. That being said, it can be challenging to regulate external air pressure so the air from the dock doesn’t leak into the store, Allen added.

A ”moving target”

As technologies evolve and building codes change, energy efficiency is a moving target for retail grocers and their commissary and supplier partners, said Chad Ott, co-president/owner of Storemasters LLC.

“A focus on conversions of old systems and equipment is a continuing process we address for each situation,” Ott said. “If a store has outdated equipment or systems we urge retailers/owners to reinvest.”

Oftentimes, he added, the ROI is something that is realized quickly by how much businesses can save on putting in energy efficient products.

Storemasters stresses to its clients the importance of using up to date systems and reinvestment in energy efficiency whenever possible.  Each project has criteria where the firm makes suggestions on how money that is currently being spent can be reanalyzed by investing into newer technology. 

“In a recent new store project in Tennessee, we worked with the owners to incorporate a Building Management System that allowed for communication of the systems to work together,” Ott said. “The building’s HVAC, lighting, refrigeration and overall electrical systems work together. “

Through the use of controllers that communicate between the systems, Storemasters was able to manage these systems through set points that maximize efficiency based on actual need. 

Lighting based on need, balanced with natural daylighting sensors, allow for lighting to only be used when the building calls for it.  Coupled with motion sensors, interior light sensors and setpoints, the store is extremely efficient, he said, due to it continually changing through the time of day and time of year. 

The HVAC works with the refrigeration system to control humidity and ensures the proper function of interior humidity and temperature levels.

COVID created many obstacles for Storemasters’ clients, Ott said.  But they primarily focused on providing patrons and employees with a safe and clean shopping experience. 

“Most grocery store were relied on more and more by people that didn’t typically shop as much,” he said.  “Restaurants and other food outlets were not open or allowed, so the grocery store industry realized substantial overall gains in sales.”

Those overall gains in sales provide retailers with additional funds that can be earmarked for energy efficiency and other reinvestments in their stores. 

“We work with retailers to invest these funds towards upgrades or replacement equipment to make their operations run more efficiently.

In the future, Ott sees movement towards more renewable sources that can benefit the grocery industry. 

Solar cooling, Solar PV panels and water-cooled refrigeration systems, for instance, have been around for a while, but they’re starting to pop up more in more in grocery stores, he said.

Energy efficiency, but also health

Recent research has shown that increased air changes could help flush viruses out of buildings. As a result, Burns & McDonnell has seen a greater prioritization on health-related strategies than energy efficiency, Allen said.

“As the pandemic continues, a completely new control strategy will inevitably be developed to decouple outside air from air turnover. In tandem, overall energy efficiency strategies will also incorporate infection control.”

There’s a dual focus on mitigating virus spread from person to person, while simultaneously protecting food and products, Klysen added.

Burns & McDonnell anticipates growth in automation and the integration of new technology, such as UV infiltration systems, to significantly increase within food processing plants, particularly in warehouses.

“Both technological advancements can greatly improve efficiency, while supporting social distancing and minimizing outbreak risk,” Klysen said.

It will come as no surprise, given the current circumstances, but e-commerce has rapidly increased across the industry, Allen said.

That development will soon begin impacting the design of stores and how owners manage e-commerce from stock rooms.

“Currently, stock rooms are sectioned off for pickup locations and it can be challenging to find enough space to hold goods, while keeping all products stored at proper temperatures,” Allen said. “We’re helping some clients determine the most efficient locations and ways to store food from e-commerce orders cost-effectively.”

Novolex charts ambitious course on energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is front and center in Hartsville, S.C.-based Novolex’s new Sustainability Report, the second annual report from the food packaging industry leader.

In 2019, according to the report, Novolex improved its data collection processes to include both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions data from all of its global manufacturing operations.

Energy use is a significant driver of emissions, with most of the company’s energy use coming from natural gas and grid electricity.

In 2020, Novolex will begin purchasing renewable energy to further reduce its emissions and will also continue to seek opportunities to make energy efficiency improvements at its plants. Additionally, the company reported progress by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from use of truck fleets.

The report also documents progress Novolex is making towards greenhouse gas reductions in its supply chain, as well as the creation of more environmentally sustainable products for customers. In this year’s report, the company details metrics on use of recycled and certified materials, greenhouse gases (GHGs), fleet efficiency and employee safety.

“As Novolex continues to grow, we have identified key metrics to gauge our success and challenge ourselves to do even more,” said Stan Bikulege, Novolex Chairman and CEO. “Our aim is to play a leading role in the circular economy. With COVID-19 reminding us of the importance of protective packaging, the time is now for manufacturers, NGOs, brand owners, government regulators and consumers to join together to expand the world’s recycling infrastructure. Working together, we can get there.”

This story was featured in the October edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.