Q Why are grocery stores still blasting their AC while the rest of us are trying to conserve on hot days?
A Nothing more frustrating than sweating your butt off trying to save a little energy in your tiny home, then walking into a grocery store that's so outrageously icy you start dreaming of blankets and hoodies.
Retailers tend to use a big chunk of electricity to light up their merchandise and cool their stores to fridge-like temps, but it's the food retail sector in particular that goes bonkers on this front. In 2004, Canada's food retail sector (which includes grocers, liquor stores and food specialty stores) sucked back more than 21 million gigajoules of power (FYI, one gigajoule of natural gas can cook 2,500 burgers). And grocery stores use more power per square metre than any other commercial business.
Over-cooling the air in these places is part of the problem. (About 16 per cent of the stores' hydro bill goes to AC). And there's no reason why the broccoli needs to be so blindingly lit. (Lighting accounts for 21 per cent of the bill). But those uses pale in comparison to the worst offender: refrigeration.
A whopping 57 per cent of the energy used in supermarkets goes to refrigerating and freezing all that bloody food. It wouldn't be so enragingly wasteful if all those fridges and freezers actually had doors! In his must-read book Heat, George Monbiot quotes a senior grocery manager who says every open freezer costs his company - gasp - £15,000 ($31,450) a year in electricity.
You might be wondering, "Gee, why don't they switch to the kind with doors?" Well, the major complaint is that those windows fog up whenever customers open the doors, obscuring that oh so important view of the frozen french fries.
Let's be realistic. Grocers aren't going to stop showing off their food any time soon, but they could at least switch to Energy Star freezers and fridges. If every solid-door refrigerator and freezer in the U.S. were replaced by an Energy Star model, a collective $250 million a year and emissions equivalent to nearly half a million cars would be saved!
Now, many grocers will tell you they've been doing their part to chill out on power use on really hot days, but mostly that means some stores just turn down their lights during daylight hours.
Loblaw has had a formal demand response system in place in Ontario since last year that lets the company centrally lower lighting and air conditioning levels at 110 Loblaws, Zehrs and Great Canadian Superstore at times of peak demand. Pretty nifty. It already dims the lights by 30 per cent in the summer (Monday to Thursday only, though) but dims them by 60 per cent and drops the AC by half if the province is really screwed for power.
This isn't totally out of the goodness of the company's heart. Loblaw signed a deal with the province in 2005 promising to cut its power usage by 10 megawatts with three hours' notice in exchange for payment. If this became a permanent policy and not just something done a handful of times per summer, we'd be laughing.
In the meantime, do your part by telling your grocery manager you'd like to see the lights dimmed and AC reduced every day. Send a letter to head office and tell them the same, and throw in a request for solid-door Energy Star fridges while you're at it.
Probably the biggest statement you can make is with your shopping cart, or at least what you put in it. Stay away from super-energy-intensive processed frozen foods. And if you're serious about this, you'll look for produce that doesn't require refrigeration. A turnip would always beat out a box of fancy lettuce from California that isn't just cooled in the store to keep it from wilting but is chilled all the way here in a refrigerated truck. (Up to 20 per cent of the fuel used to transport it goes to keeping the cargo cool.) Shopping at farmers markets (ones you can access by foot/bike/transit) is one of the best way to avoid power-hungry shops.
And don't stop there. If you spot a retail shop wasting energy like it's 1999, pull the manager aside and voice your concerns. If it's a storefront biz, you can hook it up with Cool Shop, a program run by the Clean Air Foundation that helps businesses trim the fat and conserve power (www.cleanairfoundation.org/coolshops). No reason to quietly project your irritation onto those peas when you can speak up and make a difference!