Navigant Research Blog

Energy Efficient Solutions for Retail Stores Begin to Emerge

Benjamin Freas — July 23, 2014

The retail landscape is in flux, to say the least.  Earlier this year, Staples announced the closure of 225 stores.  Troubled Best Buy isn’t closing any stores this year, but it was one of several retailers to close stores in 2013.  Things aren’t all so bleak for big box retail, though.  Costco is in the midst of a 5-year plan to open 150 new stores.  Meanwhile, Walmart announced a strategy of shifting toward 10,000 SF to 40,000 SF grocery and convenience-type stores, away from 200,000 SF superstores.  Large retailers are rethinking their physical footprint.  Part of the shifting landscape comes down to the fact that brick-and-mortar stores, particularly warehouse-type stores, are costly to operate.  Moreover, the energy efficient operation of these assets is hindered by factors such as unpredictable occupancy, high ceilings, and vast open space.  Yet, smart building technologies are being developed for the specific challenges that face retail buildings.

There are numerous approaches to improving the energy efficiency of buildings (see Navigant Research’s reports Energy Efficiency Retrofits for Commercial and Public Buildings and Building Energy Management Systems).  But many of these aren’t appropriate for large, big box retail buildings.  A recent brief from Johnson Controls’ Institute for Building Efficiency provides a thorough analysis that quantifies the cost and payback of various building efficiency improvements for commercial office buildings.  It details 16 measures that represent 90% of possible energy savings.  Unfortunately, most of those do not address big box retail; they focus on using energy for building occupants, not for empty spaces.  That translates to providing cooling, lighting, and even power for computers only when occupants are in the space.  Although these measures work in office buildings, healthcare facilities, schools, and many other commercial buildings, they don’t provide the same opportunity to many retail spaces.

What Does Smart Retail Look Like?

Many retailers have aggressively pursued demand-controlled ventilation, lighting and controls upgrades, and advanced efficiency compressors for HVAC and refrigeration to reduce operating costs.  But the cutting edge of smart building technology for retailers focuses more on the consumer experience than on energy efficiency.  GE Lighting and BryteLight, for instance, are using next-generation LED fixtures to provide location-based services for retailers.  Similarly, the Open Group, a consortium that enables the achievement of business objectives through IT standards, has outlined a use case of using sensors to provide real-time information to retail customers.

However, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab has recently unveiled a concept to use smart sensing technology to reduce energy consumption.  Local Warming creates a controllable heating zone around an individual occupant, leaving the rest of the space at a neutral temperature.  The solution relies upon a Wi-Fi-based motion tracking system that controls a system of mirrors and rotating motors to direct an infrared energy beam onto an occupant.  In the future, LED technology can further reduce the complexity of the system by allowing a more distributed source of infrared heat.

Local Warming Concept

(Source: SENSEable City Lab)

While the system is not specifically designed for retail, the most compelling application for Local Warming is clearly big box retail.  These retail spaces are typically large and sparsely occupied.  Additionally, infrared heating has long been employed in large retail spaces.  Infrared heaters, which transfer heat through radiation rather than convection, warm occupants without having to warm the air.  In warehouse-like stores, with lots of air relative to the number of people in it, infrared provides an efficient method of heating.  Local Warming may signal a shift in the use of advanced sensor and location-based services in retail to the development of more advanced efficiency solutions.

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