SAN ANTONIO -- Secondary-loop refrigeration systems and utility deregulation are just two of the hot issues flashing intensely on retailers' radar screens as they seek new solutions for increasing energy efficiency and cutting costs heading forward.
"The one issue I always like to hear about is the different approaches to refrigeration," said Charlie Wernette, manager of retail engineering at H.E. Butt Grocery Co. here and chairman of this year's Energy & Technical Services Conference, which kicks off here this week and is sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "Are more people using secondary loops or scrolls?"
Refrigeration is but one of the key topics that retailers and wholesalers are concerned about -- and that will form the backbone of educational workshops and presentations at this year's event. Exploring new options in lighting, addressing environmental issues and, of course, ensuring that the controls are in place to handle the year-2000 computer problem will also garner a great deal of attention at the conference.
Ken Hopwood, director of store engineering and equipment at Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, pointed out that refrigeration technologies, like utility deregulation, are still undergoing a great deal of change. Referring to secondary-loop systems, he said, "we don't use this technology now, but this would be an important area for me to learn."
Tom Ramsbottom, store engineer at Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, has also been following developments in the secondary-refrigerants area. "That has been one of the most promising ways out there as far as cost savings for the supermarket industry," Ramsbottom said.
With a secondary-loop refrigeration system, stores pump a glycol solution instead of a refrigerant to cool food cases. Scroll compressors are refrigeration pumps that can be located on the sales floor near the cases or in the back room. Reciprocating compressors and screw compressors are other types of refrigeration technology typically positioned in the equipment room of supermarkets.
"The benefits [of a glycol system] are that, in case of a leak, you're not leaking an expensive substance," Ramsbottom said. "And then there's the environmental issue. You wouldn't be leaking refrigerants into the environment."
But issues still need to be addressed concerning secondary refrigerants. "Sometimes lowering glycol to such a low temp increases the thickness so it becomes more a sludge," Ramsbottom of Associated Food Stores said. "When this happens, the whole system fails to work. The system just won't pump and you begin to lose temperature." While refrigeration dominates many discussions at the conference, retailers will also beable to obtain more information about year-2000 compliance of systems and controls that affect the supply chain, in a workshop session scheduled for Tuesday.
"We use a lot of microprocessors that control air conditioning and refrigeration, so what will happen when the date changes?" from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000, Wernette asked. And what about "the scales we use in the supermarket and the cash registers? Many systems have computer chips in them."
To address this concern, H-E-B began using a third party a year ago to go into stores, take inventory and evaluate the pieces of equipment that might be affected by the Millennium Bug. "This is an ongoing process," Wernette said. "We have no results yet."
Deregulation will also be a major focus, with half of Wednesday's sessions devoted to the topic.
"Most significant [to the industry] are activities related to open-access transition," said Mike Lloyd, director of purchasing and energy at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y. "The key aspect of open access is that as the transition develops, it's important to understand it comprehensively so that you make the proper decisions. Every utility company is different and there are different dates for open access."
As an example, Lloyd pointed to Pennsylvania, where open access will be accelerated after Jan. 1, 1999. Two-thirds of all customers will have a choice by Jan. 2, 1999, and the final third will have a choice Jan. 1, 2000, according to Eric Levis, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, Harrisburg, Pa.
"We anticipate we probably will be able to buy 100% of our power on the open market in 1999," Lloyd said. "And the back-out rates to determine the value of that are in the process of being finalized now."
The back-out rate is the kilowatt amount that gets subtracted from the normal total of the bill. It represent the generation charge of the bill. "That's what you buy," Lloyd said. "If the back out is 3 cents and you can buy energy for 2.4 cents, then you're saving six-tenths of a cent."
One concern is that some companies may not be able to buy energy for less if they have a small load that has an unattractive profile. "Deregulation won't be for everyone but we anticipate it will be for us and other supermarkets," Lloyd said.
"I hope the conference alerts people not to settle on simple assumptions" about deregulation, Lloyd explained. "It's changing as it transitions and you might make assumptions, which may end up being incorrect when the market opens."
Ramsbottom of Associated Food Stores hopes to find out more about open markets. "I'd like to hear the reports on how California is doing with deregulation. There are a myriad of changes every year and the conference is a great way to get up to speed."