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Energy Conservation in the Food Service Sector

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), restaurants and grocery stores use two-and-a-half times more energy than the average commercial business. At the same time, these businesses are typically small and owners lack the time or expertise to research energy efficiency opportunities, making them difficult to serve through conventional conservation improvement programs. The Green Institute recognized these opportunities and challenges and created a successful CARD grant proposal (“Energy Conservation in Food Service Sector”) to develop a pilot program for the food service sector that could be adopted by Minnesota utilities.

The project team, led by Eureka Recycling, recruited 70 businesses in Minneapolis and White Bear Lake to participate in the study. (The White Bear Lake portion of the study was supported through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.) The businesses were comprised of 57 restaurants and 13 grocery stores, all locally owned and operated. Each business received an energy audit of their facility and ongoing energy use analysis and project management. In return, businesses shared their electric, gas, and water use via utility bills and met with the program team twice a year to share feedback on energy use in their business.

Project findings: A number of important findings emerged from the study.  First, the average energy intensity of the participating restaurants exceeded the EIA benchmark by a wide margin, consuming an average of 356 kBtu/ft2 compared to the EIA benchmark of 256 kBtu/ft2. At the same time, the average intensity of the participating grocery stores, 146 kBtu/ft2, matched the EIA benchmark of 147 kBtu/ft2. The researchers speculate that the difference in energy intensity for restaurants is largely due to climate differences, as the EIA data, derived from Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) results, are regional and include neighboring states with fewer heating degree days than Minnesota. The fact that the grocery store energy intensity was equivalent to the EIA benchmark can be explained by lower make-up air requirements for grocery stores relative to restaurants, making energy usage in grocery stores less dependent on outdoor air temperatures.

Second, all of the businesses in the study had copious opportunities for energy efficiency and conservation improvements, including numerous low-cost and no-cost measures and behavioral changes. Some of the low-cost/no-cost measures include: adjusting unoccupied set points on programmable thermostats; adjusting make-up air temperature; cleaning refrigerator coils and replacing worn gaskets; and instilling a shut-down/start-up schedule for cooking equipment with the aim of limiting unnecessary idle time and duplicative equipment use. Higher cost, higher savings measures included installing variable speed exhaust fans, efficient rooftop HVAC units, efficient lighting fixtures, and efficient cooking equipment. However, in most businesses, the low-cost/no-cost measures alone had the potential to reduce energy usage by 15 percent or more. 

Overcoming challenges. While the study demonstrated that the food service sector has significant energy savings potential, there are a number of challenges to effectively serve the sector through conservation improvement programs (CIPs). First, owners of restaurants and grocery stores are hard to reach; they typically work irregular hours away from computers and email, and most of their time is spent running the business and focusing on delivering quality food and beverages. The project team concluded that attracting their attention through conventional mass marketing approaches was unlikely to be effective. Instead, the project team found success in partnering with business and trade associations to generate interest in the program and recruit participants. Also, the team found that contractors and vendors were often trusted sources of information with regard to installing new equipment, suggesting that utilities could find success by building a trade ally network for its foodservice offerings. This finding is particularly important since the study found that foodservice owners typically installed new equipment at the time of failure for their existing equipment without having spent much time researching alternatives. 

This study showed that while there are challenges to serving the food service sector, these challenges can be overcome through leveraging existing networks, building trade ally relationships, and offering specialized assistance and follow-up to business owners. It remains to be seen whether the approach used in the study pilot program can be scaled for adoption by Minnesota utilities and whether it will pass CIP cost-effectiveness tests. Nonetheless, a number of useful insights were found that may prove useful to Minnesota utilities in devising new ways to reach the food service sector. 

A copy of the project report is available on Commerce’s recent energy reports web page. For more information on this CARD project, contact project manager Joe Plummer or CARD Grant program administrator Mary Sue Lobenstein.

Image of restaurant with energy efficient lighting