A Wal-Mart parking lot in Leavenworth, Kan., is for all intents and purposes a giant laboratory.
The company is testing out new light-emitting diode (LED) lights to illuminate the area as part of an energy efficiency project involving a score of other retailers and the U.S. Energy Department. The goal is to see whether it can successfully implement a new form of lighting that could give the shopping malls of America a stark new look.
It may also bring a new look to corporate balance sheets because it promises more than 50 percent energy savings and an 80 percent reduction in maintenance costs, while reducing light "drift," or what some people call light pollution, from disturbing nearby neighborhoods.
In a collaboration that began in April last year, Wal-Mart, DOE and 11 other major retailers launched a working group to figure out what characteristics would be necessary to successfully use LED lighting in a retail parking lot setting.
The project came out of the Retailer Energy Alliance, a coalition of about 40 retailers working with the Energy Department to find ways to reduce energy use through innovative new technologies. The idea behind the alliance is that it can be costly to install some of the new technologies. To combat that, DOE works with the retailers to come up with specifications for common energy applications.
The alliance is currently working on several projects, but the LED project is the "most ripe," said Dru Crawley, DOE's commercial building team leader, because the efficiencies for solid-state lighting are already there.
Will shoppers buy it?
So Wal-Mart decided to use its new Kansas store, which opened this month, as a guinea pig. "We wanted to test the technology parameters of the recommendations ... to find out how it actually performs in the environment and with our shoppers," said Don Moseley, Wal-Mart's director of sustainable facilities.
Some of the features include a projected 10-year maintenance requirement, compared with a current two-year relamping time frame, and controlled optics that focus the light on the parking lot, eliminating much of the light "drift" that occurs now.
The parking lot is now filled with 33 poles supporting 92 fixtures. The energy savings and performance will be monitored on an annual basis, and after the first year, the company will start evaluating the project's success, Moseley said.
He declined to discuss the up-front costs beyond estimating that there is currently an estimated three- to six-year payback period, saying that because it is a new technology that is being tested, the costs do not reflect the true market value. "While that cost is an important decision, if all the other parameters prove true and the other savings are there, and we have a safe and secure shopping environment, at that point, then, we try to negotiate for volume purchase."
One area the company will be monitoring closely is customer acceptance, said Ralph Williams, an electrical engineer with the company. It will also be watching energy use, performance and light depreciation from an outage perspective and from an overall maintenance perspective.
The goal is that as these factors are watched, the Kansas store will be used in DOE's Gateway Demonstration project, making it a showcase for various LED products. According to the department's Web site, it could help spur the use of the new technology.
Other energy efficiency partnerships in the works
There are two other alliances currently working with the Energy Department: the Commercial Real Estate Energy Alliance and the Hospital Energy Alliance, both of which launched in April. The Retailer Alliance was the first to start, beginning in February last year.
For example, commercial real estate owners and large retailers have agreed to work with the department to try to reach 50 percent energy savings throughout an entire new building, and 30 percent in one existing building.
"The idea is not just one each, but it's to take what is learned and move on toward changing prototypes so you're getting significant energy savings from technologies that work in existing buildings that can move through entire portfolio," Crawley said.
This project has 23 industry partners and began in November, Crawley said. DOE is getting ready to review initial plans for each for achieving efficiency plans, and the next step for new buildings is construction. For existing buildings, the next step is retrofitting.
These kinds of alliances are demonstrating how the department can use its position to help various industry sectors achieve real energy efficiency, Crawley said.
"This is an example of what can be done," he said. "The department can be the broker to make sure that the energy efficiency claims are met and that the owners get what they expect."
The next sector DOE is eyeing for an energy efficiency partnership is higher education, Crawley said, which has already made significant strides on its own. "We're talking with colleges, universities and community colleges to see what we can do there," Crawley said. "We want to see how we can support them and help in their efforts to save energy."