Higher energy costs are forcing Valley companies to look for alternatives
By Don Harris
From the neighborhood car wash to a corporate behemoth such as US Airways, rising energy costs are forcing Valley businesses to search for alternatives to relieve the pressure on their bottom lines.
On a warm weekend morning in the Phoenix area, a bored but concerned car wash attendant asks the only motorist who pulls up for a cleaning: “Where is everybody?” He then answers his own question: “People aren’t driving as much and their cars aren’t getting as dirty.”
From airlines to car washes to supermarket chains, record-high gas prices are taking their toll, causing businesses to implement strategies aimed at trimming expenses and saving energy.
Alternatives, ranging from solar to wind to biodiesel, are becoming more attractive and cost-effective as utility bills and prices at the pump continue to squeeze the bottom line.
While US Airways made major news when it announced a broad range of steps to cut costs and generate revenue, the airline is by no means alone in its actions. Bashas’ Family of Stores is an example of supermarkets that are feeling the pinch of higher diesel fuel prices, and the trucking industry reports some haulers are considering dropping customers who are in outlying areas.
Even car washes, which depend entirely on customers’ driving habits, are seeing a decline in business. Brian O’Connor, owner of Arizona Auto Wash, with operations throughout the Valley and in Sedona, says his customers are coming in less frequently.
“Instead of once a week, maybe we see them every other week,” O’Connor says. “People are so sick of putting money into their cars. They’re changing oil every 10,000 miles instead of 3,000 miles.”
O’Connor and other gas retailers are victims of what he calls a double whammy. Retailers get 8-to-10-cents per gallon, regardless of the price. Back when gas was $1 a gallon, that was a 10 percent profit. At $4 a gallon, that’s only 2.5 percent.
In addition to hiking the air-conditioning a degree or so, O’Connor has employees check equipment regularly for leaky hose bibs and broken sprinkler heads to conserve water.
Conservation, whether of water, fuel or energy, comes in many forms. For example, there’s solar power. Leah Bushman of Dependable Solar Products in Tempe, acknowledges that businesses, in particular home builders, don’t opt for solar units because of the cost.
“They want to know how is it going to affect their pocketbook, what is the return on investment,” she says.
She tells of a California builder who found that equipping homes with solar units added $18,000 to the cost, even after rebates and incentives. But, those solar homes sold much faster than others in the development.
In addition, a “green” architect in the Valley is seeing more interest in solar energy, Bushman says. “Why? Because more people are aware that we have an energy crisis on our hands,” she says. “We don’t have cheap oil anymore, but we do have the solar technology and the sunshine.”
At Southwest Windpower in Flagstaff, Miriam Robbins, marketing director, says any business could benefit from the company’s system, which is installed directly into the electric grid and does not need batteries or additional backup. The cost of most systems, including installation, ranges from $12,000 to $18,000. Rebates are available.
“The amount of power you get depends on wind speed,” she says. “Larger retailers may be interested to not only help offset electric costs, but also to make it more of a green statement. It can be installed on top of a light pole in a parking lot.”
Rick Katt, an owner of AZ BioDiesel in the Valley, says any business with a large fleet of trucks that runs on diesel should consider biofuel.
“No modification to your vehicle is needed,” he says. “It’s 80 percent vegetable oil, your motor runs cooler in hot weather and it’s cheaper than regular diesel by about 50 to 75 cents a gallon. And it’s better for the environment.”
Kristy Nied, director of communications for Bashas’, says the soaring price of diesel fuel has made it even more difficult for the company to operate in a cost-efficient manner.
“We rely on diesel fuel for our fleet of 97, over-the-road, 18-wheelers that deliver groceries to our stores throughout the state,” she says.
Recently, Bashas’ installed a device on its diesel trucks and eight other trucks that reduces fuel consumption and emissions.
“We’re saving enough fuel to run our entire fleet for a week,” Nied says. “We’ve also achieved a 32 percent reduction in particulate emissions.”
Bashas’ is testing a work-at-home program for certain employees, rewarding those who carpool with gifts ranging from duffel bags to vacations, and giving employees who ride public buses for two months a $25 gift card for store items.
“We’ve seen the number of bus riders go up because of gas prices,” Nied says.
A business decision closely related to the price of gas was the discontinuation of Bashas’ “Groceries on the Go” service.
“The cost of fuel made it extremely difficult for us to offer delivery service at a reasonable fee,” Nied says.
During the hot summer months, Bashas’ encouraged stores to set thermostats 2 degrees higher than normal. The grocery chain also placed nightshades on open freezer cases to reduce energy consumption, and installed energy-efficient lighting in more than one-third of the stores. The goal is to retrofit the remaining stores by the end of next year, Nied says.
To cope with rising fuel costs, US Airways has plans to cut as many as 2,000 jobs and started charging passengers more for items such as drinks, choice seats and checked bags. In the second quarter, the carrier lost $567 million, even though revenue rose 3 percent to $3.26 billion. But that revenue was eaten up by fuel costs. A year ago, the company reported a profit of $263 million.
In announcing US Airways’ second quarter earnings, company Chairman and CEO Doug Parker said he expects the new fees to add $500 million to the airline’s coffers. However, that’s less than half of the $1.1 billion the company paid for fuel in the second quarter.
Industry sources estimate fuel costs for airlines have increased 80 percent over a year ago. Valerie Wunder, associate manager of media relations for US Airways, says the airline is estimating its fuel costs to be $2 billion more than last year.
She explains other moves to save fuel. They include replacing all service carts with ones that are 12 pounds lighter and, in the cockpits, replacing paper manuals with electronic flight bags and maintenance logbooks to remove about 100 pounds of weight on each flight.
“Our fuel-hedging program and fuel-conservation measures such as single-engine taxi, which saves an estimated 5.2 million gallons of fuel annually, and fuel-conserving winglets, which reduces drag and saves approximately 1 million gallons of jet fuel, also help us conserve fuel,” Wunder says.
Karen Rasmussen, president and CEO of the Arizona Trucking Association, says fuel prices led to a record number of trucker bankruptcies nationally in the first quarter of the year. The association has 353 members, including UPS, Bashas’ and Safeway.
“Truckers are struggling,” she says. “They’re doing everything in their power to reduce fuel consumption, such as limiting idle time and keeping tires properly inflated. But, when it’s 113 degrees and they’re in their sleeper cab taking a required break, they have to keep the A/C going.”
In many cases, truckers are installing governors to limit speed or have instituted a companywide policy of keeping speeds between 58 and 62 mph.
“Reducing speed reduces fuel use,” Rasmussen says. “Many companies are looking at markets or customers they won’t serve as part of an overall business plan. They’re sticking with their best customers, the ones that pay their bills on time.”
Fuel formerly was the second highest cost of doing business next to labor.
“Now, it’s the highest in many cases,” Rasmussen says.
“There’s not much to indicate we will get an improvement in fuel prices,” Rasmussen says.
Arizona Business magazine September 2008 “There are too many things on the global horizon indicating we will continue to have shortages of distillate, which is what diesel fuel is made from. There is a huge increase in demand overseas.”
Part of the problem is the weak dollar. U.S. firms are exporting more diesel fuel than ever.
“They can sell it for more overseas,” Rasmussen says. “Wouldn’t you?”