By Cedar Blazek
It’s no secret that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020 brought everything to a screeching halt. Nearly overnight the world was in lock-down, businesses shuttering—some temporarily, some for good—as the overarching “What do we do now?” question blanketed the economic landscape.
The pandemic forced widespread shutdowns across commercial sectors and challenged essential businesses to quickly adapt as consumer traffic changed and public health protocols tightened. As a result, many companies had to temporarily put sustainability goals aside to shift their focus to pandemic response.
For businesses small and large the pandemic meant rapid change to all operations, from simple to complex. Many businesses had to cut costs just to survive, while maintaining the safety protocols as well as working to continue maintaining and implementing sustainability measures and initiatives set in motion before COVID-19. For better and worse, the pandemic has had a major impact on businesses striving to achieve energy goals.
Across many companies, facilities departments and energy teams worked tirelessly to ensure customers could shop and team members could work safely at essential retail locations. At the same time, they needed to ensure that new guidelines and tightened budgets would not curtail their previous energy-efficiency efforts. Adaptability and innovation were key characteristics for companies transitioning to a post-pandemic model of operations, and essentially, companies had to learn how to do more with less.
This article takes an inside look into two large but very diverse companies—Walgreens and Life Time—that are committed participants in the Better Buildings Initiative through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). We investigate how COVID-19 has affected their energy-efficiency protocols and how they are continuing to sustain and implement their energy goals, despite the challenges of the pandemic, among others.
From total shutdown to having to quickly learn how to operate during a pandemic, these two company studies offer insights into innovative and forward-thinking solutions that at once helped them respond to unforeseen events and keep their energy-saving goals on target. The lessons learned by these companies may prove beneficial for other businesses facing similar obstacles, now or in the future.
What Is The Better Buildings Initiative?
Through the Better Buildings Initiative, DOE partners with public and private sector organizations to make commercial, public, industrial, and residential buildings more efficient, thereby saving energy and money while creating thousands of jobs. To date, more than 950 Better Buildings partners, including Walgreens and Life Time, have shared their innovative approaches and strategies for adopting energy-efficient technologies.
With the goal of driving leadership in energy innovation, DOE works through the Better Buildings Initiative to partner with business leaders in the private and public sectors to accelerate energy-saving investment measures and share successful best practices.
Collectively, Better Buildings Initiative partners have saved more than 2.2 quadrillion Btus of energy, equivalent to more than $13.5 billion, and more than 130 million tons of carbon dioxide. Partners have also reduced their water use by more than 10 billion gallons. Together, partners represent more than 30 of the country’s Fortune 100 companies, 12 of the top 25 U.S. employers, 12 percent of the U.S. manufacturing energy footprint, and 13 percent of total commercial building space. Partners also include eight national laboratories and more than 80 state and local governments spanning the nation.
With the support of DOE through the Better Buildings Initiative, Walgreens and Life Time were able to adapt to pandemic-related business and consumer changes while maintaining their energy-saving initiatives and becoming better prepared for future challenges.
Walgreens Adopts Smarter Operations
Deemed an essential business, Walgreens, a pharmacy, health, and beauty company, continued operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with strict safety protocols in place—which included increased sanitation measures, shortened operating hours, and extremely limited in-store customer counts. Walgreens quickly altered procedures to maintain their business while allowing in-store shopping and keeping both customers and employees safe. The company moved to immediately offer services through their existing pharmacy drive-thru windows, added curb-side pick-up service, improved on-line ordering and even provided delivery in some areas.
Focused on extensive internal guidelines to protect employees and customers, as well as being conscientious of the stress their team members were already managing, Walgreens initially delayed most of the energy efficiency projects slated for 2020. However, the company was able to regain momentum in the second half of the year, fulfilling its program goals for 2020. Each energy-efficiency program required re-thinking strategies followed by innovative approaches based on how their energy-focused work might affect the store’s ability to safely serve customers.
Re-Thinking Smart Energy Goals
Throughout the pandemic, the company rallied to provide essential products and services to communities across the U.S., all the while continuing to show leadership in energy efficiency. Walgreens was recognized by the DOE in spring 2021 for achieving its 20 percent energy-intensity improvement goal through the Better Buildings Challenge, a program within the broader initiative.
To reach this goal, Walgreens focused on upgrading HVAC equipment and installing optimized lighting solutions to improve efficiency in many of its stores. In 2019, the retailer was recognized by DOE’s Interior Lighting Campaign for implementing the largest number of facility projects and achieving the largest portfolio-wide energy savings among applicants, realizing an annual electricity savings of 54 million kWh. That’s enough electricity to power more than 5,000 U.S. homes for a year.
However, continuing the LED indoor lighting program would have been highly disruptive to operations and would have demanded extra shifts in the stores during the early weeks and months of the pandemic. Consequently, Walgreens looked at re-planning and shifting lighting replacements until the end of the year. Working closely with its partners and lighting vendors, Walgreens was able to complete 80 percent of all lighting retrofits between June and August, 2020. This was only possible because of the long-standing business relationships and open communication among all stakeholders in the program.
In 2019, Walgreens received a building efficiency award from DOE’s Advanced Rooftop Unit (RTU) Campaign after upgrading more than 4,300 RTUs with high-efficiency units and controls to save 39 million kWh annually. The award from DOE rounded out a RTU replacement program that Walgreens had developed several years earlier to strategically retire RTUs and proactively replace them with more efficient models prior to equipment failure. Because work was mainly completed outside, the HVAC replacements continued largely uninterrupted during the pandemic.
Planned refrigeration upgrades were also paused in the spring of 2020. Walgreens had completed surveys and plans for many high-traffic stores to upgrade refrigeration equipment and were about to proceed with installations when the pandemic began. The company re-surveyed and shifted the work to stores with less foot traffic, where impact could be minimized. Under the new plan, Walgreens was able to complete the majority of the 2020 refrigeration replacements.
Lastly, the company’s energy management system (EMS) store-wide roll-out was launching an aggressive implementation schedule when the pandemic hit, pausing action for several weeks. But Walgreens was committed to making up for lost time—by the end of the fiscal year in August, all installations that had been planned for the first year were complete.
Walgreens was also an essential partner in helping the country support direct COVID-19 efforts. After the initial changes to store operations, the engineering team quickly pivoted to support COVID-19 testing and later to vaccine storage and distribution. They worked to evaluate, procure, and distribute ultra-cold freezers and developed vaccine storage systems and handling protocols for the pharmacies. Because of the extremely low temperatures required to safely store some vaccines, energy use was one of many concerns and criteria during this phase. The team partnered with utility account representatives to gather data on electricity reliability and outage history to identify suitable vaccine storage and distribution locations. The ultra-cold freezers selected by Walgreens utilize natural (non-ozone depleting) refrigerants.
In addition to pandemic-related challenges, Walgreens also had to battle a very active and destructive hurricane season in the southern U.S. which caused widespread power outages. Further, record-breaking temperatures across the country and wildfires in California put stress on the electrical grid, and social unrest resulted in extensive property damage from protests during 2020. These unforeseen circumstances challenged Walgreens to respond swiftly and responsibly, but ultimately positioned the company to respond even better to future events.
As one of the first retail partners to join the Better Buildings Challenge in 2011, Walgreens has implemented a range of strategies and technologies over the past decade to steadily reduce energy use at thousands of retail stores and distribution centers across the country. To date, and despite the pandemic, Walgreens has met all of its energy-related goals, effectively reducing energy use by at least 20 percent (by 2020) across its portfolio of over 100 million square feet.
Life Time Survives Total Shutdown
On the other end of the spectrum from Walgreens, some businesses, like fitness centers, were ordered to cease operations due to the pandemic.
One such example is Better Buildings Challenge partner, Life Time, which operates more than 150 health clubs in the U.S. and Canada. With large, resort-like destinations that operate 20+ hours per day, seven days a week, Life Time’s facilities management team proactively implemented measures to recalibrate its building management systems to avoid potential energy waste.
Life Time analyzed data for its more than 18-million square feet of building space through its energy management system (EMS) platform and addressed any issues with limited staff. Life Time’s Director of Energy Management & Sustainability, Peter Isabell, explained “While it certainly was a difficult period for our business, COVID also presented us with the opportunity to learn more about our buildings through closures and reopenings and, sometimes, more than once in certain markets. Our operations staff not only ensured our clubs were maintained and safe, but assisted in our efforts to control energy usage.”
During the pandemic closure period, Life Time’s team also rescheduled over 5,000 pieces of equipment, directly reducing over 86 million kWh of electricity, 6.5 million therms of natural gas and 600 million gallons of water usage. The company also has made tremendous strides in efficiently managing water usage through its pool, sauna and steam room amenities.
An On-going Commitment To Smart Energy
With the lifting of pandemic restrictions in most of its markets, most Life Time locations have since reopened with ongoing, extensive cleaning protocols, including measures taken during nighttime closures at most facilities. This has allowed Life Time to undertake a commissioning process to shut down additional systems at night – saving even more energy and ensuring its clubs are operating as efficiently as possible, while also ensuring positive building pressure and enhanced circulation and filtration.
Beyond energy saving measures implemented during the pandemic, Life Time has steadily replaced roof top units (RTUs) over several years. In fact, the company joined the Better Buildings Advanced RTU Campaign in 2016 and was awarded for implementing the highest percentage of high-efficiency upgrades to its RTU portfolio. To date, Life Time has replaced more than 1,000 RTUs and retrofitted another 1,800 with advanced controls – amounting to 95 percent of its RTU inventory. The result of these upgrades was an estimated savings of 21 million kWh and, with additional lighting retrofits, a nearly 25 percent energy savings over four years.
The Future Is Bright
As businesses are gradually resuming pre-pandemic operations, there are many clean energy solutions and energy efficiency takeaways and adaptations that companies will continue to implement. Pandemic-related energy and cost-saving measures have proven effective and worthwhile, benefiting the environment, businesses and consumers alike.
The Walgreens and Life Time case studies demonstrate that through innovation, creative problem solving and support from DOE, businesses can not only survive but thrive during challenging times.
Learn more about Walgreens’ and Life Time’s involvement in DOE’s Better Business Initiative as well the Initiative’s market-tested strategies for energy efficiency and decarbonization at the Better Buildings website.
Cedar Blazek is a Management and Program Analyst in the Commercial Buildings Integration program under DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Through the Better Buildings Initiative, Cedar partners with retailers, food service providers and grocers to recognize leadership and accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency best practices. Cedar also oversees the Technology Research Team program, where experts from DOE’s National Labs analyze the latest research and development on a range of building technologies with a goal of providing market-ready solutions for building owners and operators. Cedar holds a BA in Environmental Policy from Williams College.