LIGHT YEARS AWAY?

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Deregulation of the electric-utility industry may hold great promise for reduced energy costs, but retailers say it's far too early in the process to bank on those savings.Retailers would welcome the opportunity to "shop around" for electrical power and obtain competitive bids from various suppliers, and are hopeful national legislation will be passed. At the state level, energy-management

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Deregulation of the electric-utility industry may hold great promise for reduced energy costs, but retailers say it's far too early in the process to bank on those savings.

Retailers would welcome the opportunity to "shop around" for electrical power and obtain competitive bids from various suppliers, and are hopeful national legislation will be passed. At the state level, energy-management executives are closely watching deregulation projects under way in New Hampshire and Illinois.

Although the blueprint for a competitive electricity market has not yet been drawn, there are already movements afoot and posturing by suppliers, retailers told SN. Distributors attending the Energy and Technical Services Conference here this week said they're eager to swap stories and learn more about what the future of utility deregulation may mean for them.

"A lot of retailers have been contacted by people who want to sell power and many retailers are unsure of what's going on and how the whole scenario will play itself out," said Edward Mader, energy manager at Randall's Food Markets, Houston.

He said the topic will be heavily discussed at the conference, sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "One of our goals is to determine where deregulation is going and how it's going to affect our industry."

Jim Riley, senior vice president of engineering at Jitney Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., agreed utility deregulation "is probably the biggest topic today." He did note, however, that it may be two years before it takes hold on a national scale.

Until the future of utility deregulation becomes more clear, however, retailers said they will continue to move forward with a wide range of other energy-saving projects that have proven to pay off. New technologies in efficient lighting and successful conversion to next-generation refrigerants are most frequently cited as key projects.

Len Micek, manager of engineering at King Soopers, Denver, said energy-management strategies continue to evolve: "It's a moving target. There's been a lot of emphasis on utilities -- not just electricity but gas, transportation, water. We're all trying to become more efficient in those areas."

At King Soopers, he said, "We are continually trying to get a better handle on utilities and looking at new ways of auditing, especially with the changes occurring with rates." Currently electricity bills are reviewed by accounting staff, but Micek believes a dedicated auditor might prove beneficial in identifying problems as well as opportunities for savings.

Riley of Jitney Jungle said lighting projects are garnering a lot of attention today, both at his company and in the industry overall.

"We are designing new stores and retrofitting stores with T-8 lamps," which are narrower, more efficient bulbs than their T-12 predecessors. "We are constantly looking at what's out there" in new technology, Riley noted, particularly improvements in incandescent lighting and halogens.

Randall's Mader said efficient lighting remains important to the chain's retrofit and expansion programs. "A lot of our stores already incorporate electronic ballasts and T-8 lighting into initial store design. We are going to higher-efficiency, higher- quality lighting," he said.

Riley noted that some long-standing issues, such as proper disposal of old electrical lamps, remain important today.

"With lamp disposal, you want to make sure you're handling it properly. It's one of those items that people might not pay attention to, but it's something that can jump up and bite you if you're not careful," he said.

Mader said the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbon coolants used for refrigeration is another issue that will remain important for years to come. Production of CFCs was halted on Jan. 1, 1996, but retailers are permitted to use the coolants -- which they can purchase at rapidly rising prices or can draw from supplies stockpiled in anticipation of the phaseout.

"The CFC issue is still very much at the forefront. I think it's still an issue that radically affects our industry," Mader said. Some of Randall's refrigeration systems continue to use CFCs, but even those are scheduled to be converted.

King Soopers has experimented with various approaches in refrigeration-conversion projects, and is now developing a strategy for the future.

"We've gone through a lot of refrigeration systems over the last several years and we are just now pulling together information to see how effective they've been," Micek said.

"Some have been good and some not so good. Now we have to weed through them and find the best solutions," he said.

Performance analysis is an essential part of energy planning, retailers said. Although many companies allow their vendors to evaluate programs, retailers are becoming increasingly interested in doing the analysis themselves.