Wegmans Food Markets: Homespun Sustainability

Distributing Sustainability

“It all began with produce being one of the pinnacles of our company and a showcase department,” says Dave Allar, Retail Service Center (RSC) maintenance manager, of the Pottsville, PA, distribution facility, an innovative multi-phase project, which now services half the chain, with the other half out of Rochester. Since it first opened as a produce warehouse in 2004 at 120,000 square feet, the Pottsville RSC has expanded to 500,000 square feet, including 12 banana ripening rooms, and has become a progressive sustainability testing ground.

Its underlying mission percolates on delivering the freshest, quality produce efficiently as possible. “When servicing everything from New York, many stores would have to order further in advance to account for, in some cases, eight hours of travel time. We dramatically cut down order cycle time to help the produce managers improve accuracy of their ordering with quick turnaround, and also greatly improved service by focusing on half the stores,” Allar says.

“Dave (Allar) has done a tremendous job of capturing all the energy efficiency projects. One of the big keystones is the hydrogen pallet jack program,” says Jason Wadsworth, sustainability coordinator.

“About three and a half years ago on this campus, we were running into some performance problems with battery charges for our fleet and started looking for alternatives,” Allar continues. “Typically, you go to a quick-charge battery or something like that, which actually uses more electricity. I came across research on hydrogen fuel cells, which seemed promising.”

It’s worth noting that in Pennsylvania at that time, experts were predicting electricity costs would increase by 30 percent, and those predictions ended up being pretty close, according to David DeMascole, general manager. “We were facing electricity regulation coming up,” he says, adding, “When trying to maintain consistent low prices, we had to try to do something to offset that increase.”

At the same time, the facility was expanding its produce operation, plus doing floor work, and needed to increase batteries to run multiple shifts. “After some cost analysis, we decided to take a shot at using fuel cells,” says DeMascole. “The nice thing about the fuel cell… it never comes out of the truck. All you need to do is fill it up like your car, so we eliminated having to purchase 130 batteries, and replaced them with half the amount of fuel cells and started running that at the produce warehouse.

“Not to bash batteries, but there is the issue of how much acid is involved,” says DeMascole. “There are two things that are bad about the lead acid battery — lead and acid,” says Allar. “At this facility, we were reporting every year about 24,000 pounds of sulfuric acid that we had at the facility. So just in one move like that, we eliminated half of that problem.”

The performance of the jacks with hydrogen proved advantageous as well. “We never figured on this, but our employees liked this equipment better because it maintained full power, while the power of the battery would decline throughout the day,” DeMascole continues.

“It’s possible to produce our own hydrogen, but that would probably cost more and the process could use quite a bit of electricity too,” says DeMascole.

To that end, “We determined that finding the right partner to supply the hydrogen would be our best bet,” says Allar, noting that the facility has been capitalizing on its initial success with fuel cells by continuing to convert more pieces of equipment in its multi-phase expansion. “Our new facility was built without a battery room because we decided to go with fuel cells immediately,” says DeMascole.

In line with Wegmans’ corporate sustain-ability platform, other projects include a major revamping of its lighting systems, resulting in a significant reduction in electrical usage. “When we changed refrigeration systems, we required extra space, but we didn’t have to build another engine room thanks to the battery rooms we no longer needed,” Allar explains. More impor-tantly, he continues, ammonia is a hazardous material and by changing refrigeration systems, “we were able to bring it down from 20,000 pounds of ammonia at our facility to 7,500 pounds. It makes our facility safer.”