As the New Year looms, operators may be thinking of resolutions they can implement to help make it through the economic recovery. One key area where operators have the potential of seeing significant savings is in energy management.
Jack Aspenson, president of energy management consultancy ABS Inc., said that energy costs are a quick-serve operation's third largest line item and one that presents a large opportunity for cost control.
"QSR has the best chance in the world (of reducing energy costs) because per-square-foot restaurants use more energy than every other building in the United States outside of hospitals," he said.
Looking at the processes that lead to high energy use is a start, and one operators may one day be required to make. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced earlier this month that it now considers carbon dioxide one of six dangerous greenhouse gases that threaten the public health and welfare of Americans. The EPA will be creating more governmental regulations of emissions — which could include those produced by restaurants.
So where does an operator start? Here are five ideas, some for quick-service pizzerias just now looking at energy management and others for those who are ready to take the next steps:
1. Join the NRA Conserve/EPA Energy Star challenge
The National Restaurant Association's Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability Web site offers operators energy-saving tips as well as the opportunity to band together with other operators. The NRA Conserve/EPA Energy Star challenge outlines a number of steps operators can take, such as using less water and developing a maintenance schedule for restaurant equipment.
Aspenson said operators' lack of an ongoing maintenance plan is one of the contributors to energy waste. "We fix it when it's broken," he said. Instead, operators should consider the expense of keeping equipment in good order as a cost savings, not only to extend the life of the equipment but to keep it running efficiently.
The Conserve Web site also features a number of tips that encourage operators to start with simple procedures, such as turning off lights, and then advance to more in-depth measures like remodeling for energy efficiency.
2. Get the best energy rates
Operators in states with deregulated utilities should negotiate better prices, and those in regulated states can still work with their providers to lower their usage and demand charges, energy management consultants say.
For operators who don't know how to begin that process, an energy management consultant can help. Kilojolts Consulting Group has developed the See the Light Energy Toolkit, including one designed for QSRs, to help operators get started. The toolkit provides instructions on whom to call and what to ask.
3. Do an energy audit and bill analysis
Having a good utility rate isn't enough if a store is an energy drain. An energy audit can help an operator determine a baseline for improvements going forward as well as help multiunit operators determine which stores are the biggest energy wasters. A bill analysis can further help operators determine if they are being charged correctly.
Aspenson said multiunit operators need to look into the reasons why their stores may have large differences in energy usage. Older stores may have inefficient or very little insulation, for example.
Once operators have their baseline established, they can easily determine the return on investment they are achieving from energy-saving measures. The See the Light Energy Toolkit, for example, includes software that helps operators determine benchmarks as well as key performance indicators in their energy management efforts. With benchmarks in place, operators can quickly see when spikes occur and address them immediately, said Gary Markowitz, Kilojolts president.
"It helps (operators) think like an energy manager without going to school to be one," Markowitz said.
4. Develop an energy management plan
Once operators know their benchmarks, they can begin implementing steps to reduce energy waste. Some of the steps can be fairly intuitive, like posting visual reminders for employees to turn off lights in unused areas, stop water waste and close walk-in doors. But an energy management plan will help the QSR maintain and increase savings over the long term, consultants say.
While the first three steps can be implemented by operators on their own, Aspenson recommends they rely on resources such as an outside energy management consultant or their own energy management department because of the level of time and expertise required. Wendy's/Arby's Group, for example, has an energy management department headed by Walt Taylor, the company's director of energy.
An energy management plan should begin with addressing the steps that can be implemented fairly easily at the lowest cost and the greatest return on investment. For QSRs, such a plan should be developed systemwide and specifically for that brand's operations, Aspenson said. The steps each brand takes will be different depending on their processes and could vary from correcting power imbalances on older buildings to installing low-flow toilets.
Implementing those low-level steps will likely take a few years, but operators should reap the ROI within the first one. Then other energy usage matters can be addressed, with the ultimate goal of the store achieving "energy independence," Aspenson said.
"This is not a 'one year I get it fixed' kind of plan," he said. "This is like a POS system. You don't just throw a POS system in there and let it sit. You have to work with it, continue to build it out as your processes change."
5. Implement higher level controls
A QSR's choice of high-level energy-management controls will be dependent on their energy usage as well as the amount of investment they are willing to make. Some stores have implemented energy-management control devices, which can manage anything in the restaurant that can be tied to a sensor, such as when equipment is turned on or off.
At this point, stores also should address the efficiency levels of their HVAC and lighting systems, Aspenson said, or decide whether their stores can be retrofitted cost effectively to the new level of standards.
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Some operators have invested in renewable energy programs, such as solar panels or biomass systems. Vegawatt is an example of a biomass combined heat and power system that allows operators to supplement their energy by burning used vegetable oil. The system also can serve as a backup generator for limited power needs during a power failure.
A number of states offer rebates to operators who install renewable energy devices. For example, New Jersey will pay 30 percent of the cost of devices like the Vegawatt – on top of a similar rebate by the federal government.
But whatever steps an operator takes to cut energy waste, they must be well thought out and consistently implemented, Aspenson warned. And there's no miracle cure.
"There's a million different ways you can do a building," he said. "It's all about what you want to pay for, what the return on investment is, and what process you want to do it in. The biggest mistake (operators) make is they either try to do everything at once without understanding the return on investment or they go buy a system that can't expand."