TARPON SPRINGS — Think your place is an energy hog? Consider the $26,000 monthly electric bill to run a supermarket.
To corral energy costs in a new Sweetbay Supermarket rising at Alt. U.S. 19 and Meres Boulevard, the Tampa-based chain is installing glass doors over the usually open dairy, beer and deli meat coolers. They're wiring motion sensors that turn on low-power LED lights when a freezer door opens. In the ceiling, 11 air conditioning units gobble a third less juice.
It's all part of a plan to open the first LEED certified supermarket in the Tampa Bay area in November. Created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings have become the recognized national building benchmark for energy efficiency, conservation and sustainable development practices.
The LEED certification extends beyond knocking 30 percent off the electric bill and the 3,000 gallon-a-day water habit. The low-flow toilets will use reclaimed wastewater, smoking will be banned within 25 feet of doors, and bicyclists will have direct access to the nearby Pinellas Trail. Low-emission vehicles will get priority parking next to the handicapped spots.
"I've had a passion for this, because it fits our strategy of product, people and corporate social responsibility," said John Turner, Sweetbay senior director of corporate development. "Once our parent Hannaford Bros. built a LEED certified store in Maine, I said why not us. They said, 'Go for it'. "
In Maine, Hannaford used exotic tactics like recessed ceiling windows for natural light and geothermal heating from well-water pumped from 750 feet below the store to score a top-tier platinum rating. In Tarpon Springs, Sweetbay is re-fitting a store that was already well into design. So the goal is a silver rating, the third highest. The energy saving strategies will help the entire chain cut electric use 12 percent this year.
The big surprise: all the environmentally correct extras only added 10 percent to the construction price and promise to pay for themselves in lower operating costs within three years.
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Retailers have been conspicuously absent in the green building movement. Of 6,677 projects LEED certified nationally since the ratings started in 2002, only 676 have any retail in them. In Florida the number shrinks to a mere nine of 46 LEED projects.
A Happy Feet Plus shoe store in Clearwater was the first LEED certified retail store in the country. Since then, the only other bay area retailer to join the list is a heavily insulated Dunkin' Donuts in St. Petersburg. The only certified supermarket in Florida is a Whole Foods in Sarasota.
That's about to change as the big grocery chains are warming up to the idea. Publix recently applied to certify two existing stores in Sarasota and Palm Beach Gardens. Sweetbay's corporate sibling Food Lion is actively working on prototypes along with industry giants Kroger and Safeway.
The point system used to gain LEED certification was recently massaged to woo more retail chains. Rather than relax standards, they added more choices, customized requirements for stores, and now give points for regional issues, including water conservation in Florida.
At Happy Feet Plus, co-owner Jacob Wurz said LEED cut the store electric bill in half. The certification draws kudos from shoppers who spot the plaque by the register.
"We'd do it again when we build another store," he said. "But unfortunately we've only rented space since then."
Renting — not owning — space figures into the many reasons why retailers are LEED latecomers:
• Unlike other commercial developers, retail landlords don't pay the electric bill. So shopping center builders have little incentive to pay more for a LEED plaque unless a chain tenant requires it. Few do.
• Unlike office and housing projects which are often one-of-a-kind efforts financed over decades, retail chains build the same store design over and over and want a quick return on their investment. Retailers who expect to open many stores yearly insist that extras like environmental upgrades pay for themselves in two or three years, not six to 10.
• In Florida, few governments offer any incentives for LEED projects. In Sarasota County, for instance, the only lure is the promise a project moves to the front of the line for plan review. Some LEED strategies are new to permitting agencies. One coordinator had to persuade seven city departments to sign off on reclaimed water in toilets because it was a first there.
"You're about to see more supermarkets LEED certified partly because institutional investors (pension funds and insurance companies that buy shopping centers) will insist on it," said Al Goins, president of AG Group, Tampa developer of the 17-acre, $60 million mixed-use project that includes the Sweetbay in Tarpon Springs.
"Retailers now realize it's just good business and a lot of them did many of these things already," said Judah Rubin, vice president of Pro-Ject International, a Tampa LEEDS consultant to Sweetbay and Publix.
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Today's grocery store is a very complex box, with enough freezers and refrigerated cases to cover a football field sideline.
Just keeping a food store at uniform temperature is a challenge. Exhaust from the refrigeration units are vented to other places to warm the chills caused by uncovered freezer cases. Bakery scents are pumped around to tempt taste buds. Seafood smells are deodorized and dispatched. Curtains of blowing air keep the bugs out of open doors.
In a test at one store, Sweetbay covered the normally wide-open refrigerated dairy case with thermal glass doors. Energy use not only dropped by three-quarters the first month, the temperature in the aisle rose six degrees from a brisk 68. Customers known to bundle up to shop there thanked managers. Despite having to open a door to grab a purchase, sales held firm.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the list of retail converts will grow. Stores are drawn now by energy savings, a sense of social responsibility and good vibes from customers. Some grocers, however, plan to use tactics they learn from LEED, but avoid the hassle and cost of certifying each new store.
"So next year we'll start certifying standard store prototypes, so a chain needs only limited paperwork and to pay fewer consultants," said Nick Shaffer, manager of commercial development for the U.S. Green Building Council. "We aim to become part of their everyday building process."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.