For Large Retailers, Energy Savings Starts with Big Data

By Dan Olson,

For many retailers, utility expenses can be the third-largest budget line item, often trailing only labor and materials. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that commercial facilities account for up to 50% of electricity use in the United States, nearly 30% of which is wasted through controllable inefficiencies, according to AltaTerra. Improving efficiency means billions of dollars in potential energy savings for retailers.

Large retailers with multiple locations have more to gain than anybody, because they can reap the benefits of efficiency many times over. The question is: Where to start?

At Ecova, we believe big energy data holds the key to identifying and prioritizing energy efficiency improvements that result in real world cost and resource savings. One-size solutions do not fit all, and effective analysis of unique site attributes, historic trends, cost drivers, weather impacts, and other factors can help companies maximize their return on energy management investment. 

Effective use of data gives retailers insight into how they are using energy and where there’s the greatest potential to improve. Retailers can start leveraging big data with these important energy management tools:

Baseline and trend analysis: One of the most fundamental energy management activities is establishing cost and consumption baselines to track over time. Trend analysis can help energy managers gauge both absolute energy consumption and energy intensity, both critical metrics for evaluating risk and performance.

Forecasting: Companies need to understand not just historic cost and consumption trends, but also how future energy cost, consumption and associated environmental liabilities will affect risk and profitability projections.

Facility benchmarks: Creating standards for similar venues and facilities can significantly help organizations identify energy hot spots and determine best practices. Portfolios should be compared to both internal and external benchmarks to fully validate perceptions of each facility’s relative performance.

Advanced analytics: Energy managers can isolate and fine-tune distinct data sets — adding parameters such as business productivity, weather and other important metrics — to determine and identify highly targeted efficiency solutions.

Measurement and verification: Reducing energy consumption can involve upgrading infrastructure or encouraging occupants to change behaviors. Either way, measurement is essential to determine what’s working and what’s not. Especially with pilot programs, precise data helps large retailers make cost-effective portfolio-wide investments with confidence. 

The more precise the data, the greater the potential for savings
Accurate and up-to-date information collected from utility bills is critical in helping companies develop a solid foundation of energy data from which to develop an energy efficiency plan. Ecova has a massive database of energy information populated with input from 17 business sectors of varying energy usage profiles and spanning more than a decade, ensuring that the data is the most accurate in the industry.  With this data we are also able to generate timely and accurate industry energy benchmarks – providing much-needed reference points that retailers can use to evaluate their performance against that of their peers.

The following three benchmarks for the retail sector demonstrate a decrease in average electricity consumption per square foot between 2009 and 2011. How did your company perform over that same time period? And how are you doing relative to industry averages?

Energy benchmarks by retail facility size
(kWh per sq. ft.)
  Q1 2009 Q3 2011
Mercantile (Retail) 0 – 7,500 sq. ft. 22.46 20.33
Mercantile (Retail) 7,501 – 25,000 sq. ft. 19.65    18.15
Mercantile (Retail) 25,001+ sq. ft. 17.56 15.80

Source: “A Big Data Look at Energy Trends: 2009-2011” Ecova

Taking action
An in-depth energy analysis will take many factors into account – location, weather, lighting schematics, and HVAC demands and controls – to create a customized and actionable energy savings plan. Two areas of potential energy savings – one well-known and one often overlooked – are lighting and plug loads:

Lighting: Simple switches in the type and timing of lighting can lead to substantial savings storewide. Where possible, replace incandescent lights with CFLs and old T-12 magnetic ballast linear fluorescent lights with high-efficiency T-8 or T-5 fixtures with electronic ballasts. Retailers should provide the right amount and kind of light where and when needed: The goal is to provide high-quality light on the products, not the walls or ceiling. Make your lighting schedule match your business schedule.  Ensure lights are on when needed and off when a space is empty.

Plug load: Facility plug loads can account for up to 20% of a store’s energy bill – roughly as much as heating, lighting or air conditioning. Retailers have significant opportunities to reduce energy consumption through wise equipment procurement and effective practices, according to a report from the New Buildings Institute and Ecova Research and Policy Team. It seems obvious, but turn off equipment not in use, including displays and basic electronics like computers when the store is closed.

Energy management is changing. The ability to leverage massive amounts of data brings significant opportunities for companies looking to strengthen the bottom line, improve environmental performance and mitigate risk. Big data can provide retailers and large organizations with powerful tools to see more, save more and sustain more.

Dan Olson is the director of product management for sustainability solutions at Ecova, where he provides strategic and tactical guidance to the ongoing development and delivery of Ecova’s client-facing sustainability services. Dan oversees multiple service lines including strategy and engagement, carbon management, waste management, and water management. He can be reached at

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