All you need to know about the growing crisis in controlling energy costs is that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — hardly a progressive company — has been experimenting with environmentally friendly and energy-conscious concepts.

Energy bills used to be a nuisance for mall owners. It was a line item on annual budgets, but it was something that you paid and moved on, passing at least some of any increases on to tenants through CAM costs. No one was talking about having any kind of energy strategy. But energy prices have been on a constant rise for a few years, and they show no sign of slowing. For example, in New York state, energy prices have more than doubled to 4.5 cents today from 1.8 cents a kilowatt hour in 1998.

Slowly that nuisance has become a full-fledged problem. Owners and property managers are in a pickle. Energy costs are clearly not going to drop and, in fact, only show signs of further increases. The time has come to act. And you can't simply go around the mall shutting off the A/C and lights early and hope to control costs. There needs to be some sophistication to monitoring and controlling energy usage. And there needs to be an exploration of new techniques and technologies.

Techniques range from using more natural light during the day to employing devices that more closely monitor and control A/C usage to Wal-Mart using wind turbines at experimental stores in Texas and Colorado. Retailers have even been asked to consider sod roofs that maintain heat and kindly provide cows with a place to graze. Really. Citizens in a Vermont town asked Home Depot to look at that ecologically correct, but not very realistic, strategy. Alas, the home improvement retailer said “No.”

But developers are getting creative in a drive to improve their bottom lines, and also ease the concerns of their neighbors and the power suppliers. A few have moved from the drawing board to the real world. In geothermal cooling for example, water is channeled through piping buried in the earth where ambient temperatures dip by as much as 20°. The water enters the system at 75° and exits at 55°.

“There are also technologies on the horizon that blend systems in order to better control them from a financial perspective,” says Jeff Bedell, vice president of operations, Macerich Co., an owner and builder of shopping mall properties nationwide, with headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Energy management begins with the cultivation of an energy-saving culture within your organization,” says Charles Kretzer, corporate director of operations, Glimcher Properties LP, a shopping center developer with national coverage, based in Columbus, Ohio. “That culture will grow out of sound maintenance practices and energy-loss preventative plans not solely focused on HVAC.”

Many practices will be low-tech.

“You might, for example, regularly check to see that door sweeps are intact, weather stripping, both internal and external, is in place, and that trees outside the building are strategically planted to maximize shading,” Kretzer says. “The point is that your program should start modestly, and gradually evolve to more complex solutions. Simple measures regularly employed will shave a lot from the energy bill.”

A handful of developers are attempting to put themselves forward as “green” developers, with some participating in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Program.

Melaver Inc., a family-owned property management and development company, for example, worked with retailers, including, Circuit City Stores Inc. to create the nation's first LEED-certified shopping center. The developer designed spaces that required less HVAC tonnage per square feet than a typical center. And the project includes rainwater cisterns to collect runoff and irrigate its landscaping.

A Giant Eagle store in Ohio also recently became the first supermarket with a LEED certification. Other retailers that have applied include Target, Williams Sonoma, Lowes, Whole Foods and Pottery Barn.

The most unlikely culprit getting caught in the green wave has been Wal-Mart, who has applied for LEED certification for its, much ballyhooed experimental store in McKinney, Texas. (It is working on another in Aurura, Colo.)

The Wal-Marts feature wind turbines as an alternative power generator and have environmentally friendly landscaping. They also have photovoltaic curtainwall systems. The buildings' performance will be monitored for three years and then the results will be publicized.

In the Southwest, Wal-Mart has hired Host America Corp. to survey 10 stores in preparation for the installation of new fluorescent lighting systems for each store that could cut lighting costs by between 15 percent and 30 percent. If the pilot program goes well, Wal-Mart could unroll the system at more of its stores.

Shoot Out The Lights

Lighting alone accounts for at least 41 percent of the monthly electric bill. In reality, the figure is even higher because high-intensity lighting sells products but also pumps heat, forcing A/C systems to work overtime.

Incandescent bulbs also burn out and need to be replaced. In its managed portfolio, Jones Lang Lasalle Inc. has chosen to address this issue through the use of power controlling devices designed to extend the life of incandescent bulbs. According to its vice president of retail operations, Greg Liebelt, the company is currently installing a power control device expected to lengthen the life of incandescent bulbs on its properties by 300 percent.

Another tip: Take a closer look at the lighting in your parking lot. Most malls employ 1,000-watt metal halides for this purpose, which siphon electrical energy vampire-like all their short lives. Pulse-start metal halides are a practical alternative, as they last longer and work more efficiently, producing more light output per watt.

Unlike many issues related to energy usage, this problem has a simple solution that may actually pay for itself many times over. Natural light is less heat-intensive than artificial illumination, and seems to positively affect purchasing behavior. According to a recent study by the California Board for Energy Efficiency (CBEE), a shopping mall equipped with skylights is likely to enjoy more than 40 percent more sales than a property with none, all other factors being equal.

“Light bulbs and signage are probably the two biggest energy-use costs in a large retail operation,” explains Tony Scianna, sales manager with Naperville, Ill.-based Polybrite International Inc., a manufacturer and designer of energy-efficient interior and channel letter lighting. “Ironically, this is an area where there haven't been any serious energy management efforts at all. … They ought to reexamine their attitude because it's costing them money.”

According to Scianna, lighting products, like the ones Polybrite manufactures, blend two cutting edge technologies to create long-lasting, non-heat emitting, illumination. The bulbs, unlike traditional filament light bulbs, are built from multiple LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes). LEDs have been around for a long time but until recently have been exclusively available in red, yellow and green. Now they come in blue and white as well, expanding their potential use.

Although LEDs cost a little more than incandescent bulbs they come with huge commercial advantages. They are impervious to cold, heat, shock and vibration, flicker-free (unlike fluorescents), and deployable in non-breakable housings. Most significantly, LEDs last much longer than the alternatives. Used at rated current, one bulb can burn for nearly 100,000 hours. An equally important point for energy-consciousness mall operators — LEDs do not produce heat because they emit no infrared.

Cost Cool

“About 35 percent of the energy bill for the average retailer in the Southeast is directly attributable to HVAC,” says Chuck Blythe, retail market leader for Trane Commercials Systems in Piscataway, N. J. “Combined energy expenditures by U.S. retailers in 2004 were in the billions. Percentage-wise, that's an enormous amount, even for a small retailer. Just think what the monthly HVAC investment of a big-box house must be in terms of dollars and cents.”

Desiccant dehumidifiers can help HVAC systems work more efficiently. Desiccant dehumidifiers rob moisture from humid air, and expel it into the facility into which they are installed. The price of this technology has dropped significantly in recent years, making it affordable for shopping centers in parts of the country such as parts of Florida and Houston and in New Orleans, where humidity control is an enormous air conditioning issue.

“Basically these technologies make your building ‘smart,’” Blythe says. “You could be looking, for example, at a system that counts the number of people entering the property and adjusts the A/C accordingly. …We're going to see many such developments in the years to come because we don't have the energy resources we once had. Squandering energy is simply not an option anymore.”

HVAC is nevertheless a primary energy-use area, and should therefore command the full attention of energy managers. There are also lots of ways beyond strict, in-house HVAC system regulation and control to trim the energy bill. Sandy Cameron is executive vice president and director of environmental and technical services for Urban Retail Properties Co., a developer, manager and leaser of retail and mixed-used properties based in Chicago. According to Cameron, an effective energy management program should focus on any and all energy-sensitive areas of the property beginning with the roof.

“If your roof is light in color you will have less heat-absorption,” he says. “Then there's insulation. Do you have enough of the right stuff to compensate for heat loss in winter?”

There are various ways to complement insulation as well. Skylights, for example, are great wintertime heat-providers. Solar screens attached to skylights will give light that projects need in the summer, minus unwanted heat, because the technology blocks ultraviolet light.

“You can achieve the same effect with the type of film used to tint auto glass,” Cameron says.