Green energy lightbulb

As the number of customers choosing to shop online increases, the energy strain is moving away from stores and onto distribution networks

The supermarket sector is a battle zone. Food inflation and the intensifying fight to be competitive on price is squeezing margins and forcing some to continue the trend of consolidation. At the same time, external pressure to reduce environmental impact is mounting – from the government, from industry influencers and, increasingly, from customers.

These factors mean it’s vital sector operators boost efficiency and make savings wherever possible. Reducing energy use is a fundamental part of this.

This, however, is a significant challenge in an industry that already invests heavily in energy management. The question now is where to find room for improvement.

As the number of customers choosing to shop online increases, the energy strain is moving away from stores and onto the distribution networks that sit behind the scenes. It’s here that the biggest savings are to be found.

The savviest supermarkets are noticing this already. Sainsbury’s’ electric bike scheme is a novel approach reducing the carbon footprint of its delivery network. Green approaches such as this will become a more viable option as charging infrastructure improves and electric vehicle technology, particularly for LCVs and HGVs, matures.

Until then, supermarkets should focus on the energy solutions used in warehouses and distribution centres.

Supermarket facilities and energy managers will already know that these massive indoor spaces are inherently energy inefficient. They are hard to insulate and need to accommodate a range of energy needs – cool areas, freezers, and heating units, for example. This makes them power hungry and a very hard environment in which to regulate temperature.

But there are energy solutions that can help.

The combined heat and power (CHP) unit we installed at a big four supermarket distribution centre is aimed precisely at addressing the issues mentioned above. If electricity is supplied by traditional power plants, only 35% of the total fuel used actually reaches the end user as energy due to inefficiencies in distributing electricity over long distances. CHPs capture the ‘wasted’ energy and transform it into heat. For this supermarket, the bi-product is used to heat water to cater for all the hot water and central heating needs across its distribution site.

Meeting these complementary energy requirements from one source dramatically reduces the amount of power needed to operate the centre. The CHP also enables on-site power generation which means electricity has less distance to travel, bringing down the energy lost to resistance in the wiring.

All told, this saves the supermarket £400,000 a year at just one of its sites. The impact of a nationwide roll-out of would potentially be huge.

Key to identifying where solutions like CHP can have the most impact is some form of insight into how energy flows through the facility. Smart sensors are a useful tool that can be attached to pretty much anything that uses or makes energy, such as machinery, air conditioning units and power generators. The sensors will relay real-time data on consumption and output to pinpoint energy needs that could be consolidated.

Finding ways to achieve greater efficiency and cut costs is a challenge at the best of times. But in a sector that has already made great strides, it can be seemingly impossible. Reducing behind the scenes energy use, in warehouses and distribution centres, is crucial to keeping up momentum. In a market that is currently so driven by price, this could be central to retaining a competitive edge and making savings that can ultimately be passed on to customers.

Rohan Shiram, Specification Manager at Centrica Business Solutions