Climate Corps: When the Low-Hanging Fruit Is Long, Long Gone

EDF Climate Corps

Climate Corps: When the Low-Hanging Fruit Is Long, Long Gone

[Editor's note: This blog is part of a series from the 2009 Climate Corps fellows. The program, from partners Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Net Impact, pairs MBA students with companies to identify energy efficiency opportunities and develop actionable strategies that help host companies reduce costs, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.] 

The fruit is always fresh.  The foggy haze retreats.  The sun shall shine brightly.  My endorphins rage after the ascent.

So has gone my climb into the world of grocery retail.  

With nationwide profits at around 1.6 percent and average energy spend at 1.3 percent, the grocery retail industry has long recognized the benefits of energy efficiency.  The low-hanging fruit is long, long gone.  The industry largely recognizes that improvements in carbon footprinting and energy management are vehicles for discovering opportunities to implement any of a sea of new energy efficiency technologies or process improvements that promise very positive net cash flows.

Ahold, where I am working as a Climate Corps fellow, is an international group of quality supermarkets based in the U.S. and Europe. Its U.S. stores include Giant-Carlisle and Stop and Shop/Giant-Landover. In 2008, Ahold's net sales topped €25.7 billion (US$36.4 billion).

The Foggy Haze Retreats 

While touring one of our Giant-Carlisle retail facilities I saw several of our new anti-fog film-coated freezer doors.  The coating eliminates the need to run fog-reducing door heaters, thereby also reducing the cooling load on the refrigeration system.  I loved it.

“Why can’t we just retrofit all our doors with that stuff?” I asked. 

Our engineering director informed me that it’s expensive.  The doors are pre-treated in the factory, he said, and we’d have to buy entirely new doors.  Unconvinced, I did additional research.  I discovered a GE anti-fog product that will likely allow us to retrofit and with fantastic results:  If implemented at two-thirds of our stores, we stand to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by more than 26,000 metric tons per year.  The financial implications appear equally as attractive.

And the Sun Shall Shine Brightly 

I’ll likely recommend a skylight retrofit project that may increase sales, reduce energy spend, and cut emissions.  Natural light is free and has long been known to be the best form of light available.  Numerous studies have shown improvements in employee morale, productivity, and even increased retail sales, all attributable to natural light.  Though either initially not considered or deemed not viable, I've changed some minds through my even conservative analysis.  If skylights were retrofitted at a third of Ahold USA stores, we'd likely save more than 13,000 metric tons of CO2 per year with a five year net present value nearing $30 million.

Surprisingly, one of my greatest assets in finding projects has been my inexperience.  I’ll ask the naïve question.  I’m highly satisfied with the answer nine times out of 10, but there’s opportunity born in that single occasion when the answer leaves something to be desired. 

Experience is valuable because it allows the individual to apply any of a set of workable solutions for a prior dilemma to a present, analogous problem.  The experienced individual, through application of schemas, can work efficiently by freeing up cognitive energies for other tasks while moving on autopilot through complex, but routine, tasks.  The advantage of experience is precisely its sole disadvantage.  The predilection toward moving through tasks quickly also limits perception and consideration.  Constant re-evaluation tends to yield to pragmatism and expediency, and so there is value in my inexperience.  I’ll see what veterans don’t.  

Although initially concerned about my ability to find good projects in this environment, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s a higher climb, to be sure, but there are great returns given the maturity and scalability of the grocery retail industry. And the fruit is always fresh.

Christopher Anderson, a 2009 Climate Corps fellow and Net Impact member, is pursuing a Masters of Business Administration degree at Penn State. This content is cross-posted on EDF’s Innovation Exchange blog.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user motumboe.