Here Comes the Sun

Going Photovoltaic with Whole Foods and the 11th Annual National Solar Tour

Corporations are discovering that solar installations can be more than a sunny public relations exercise—they’re actually good business. That was certainly the case at the unveiling this September of a huge solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the rooftop of the Whole Foods Distribution Center in Cheshire, Connecticut. The 121-kilowatt system is capable of providing 10 percent of the facility’s total energy needs. According to Jennifer McDonnell, Whole Foods" Green Mission Specialist, "This project is a practical example of how a large corporation like Whole Foods can use renewable energy generated at their own facilities to offset the usage from the grid, which is generally from non-renewable resources."

Connecticut's Whole Foods solar installation is the largest in the state.

The Whole Foods system consists of more than 1,000 Evergreen Solar Modules that weigh about 30 pounds each, totaling a whopping 30,000 pounds. The system is five times larger than the second-largest solar installation in Connecticut.

SunEdison Construction Manager Walt Kaminskas oversaw the project installation. "We generate 120 kilowatts at full capacity, but even on an overcast day, the system can generate 18 to 20 kilowatts," says Kaminskas. The system is, in fact, optimized for bad weather. Made of crystalline silicone, Evergreen Solar modules are capable of producing up to three times more energy than panels made of conventional refined silicone.

The funding for the Whole Foods installation was a combined effort by Maryland-based SunEdison and the utility-supported Connecticut Clean Energy Fund (CCEF), which provided $516,223. "We support projects that get the word out about renewable energy, and funded 55 percent of this project through a grant," says CCEF President Lisa Dondy. SunEdison owns the installation for 10 years, and is reimbursed solely for the solar energy Whole Foods uses.

SunEdison’s business model makes adding solar a no-brainer for eco-minded corporations, since they pay nothing upfront. "We own, finance and operate the facility and help fund each PV installation," says Claire Broido Johnson, a Sun Edison vice president. "The public won’t switch to solar power if the rates are higher than what they are currently paying for electricity, so we keep our rates at market or below, and help pay the cost of installing of the panels."

Future solar projects for SunEdison include a 433-kilowatt installation in Killingly, Connecticut, and a 723-kilowatt solar-electric rooftop at the Coastal Pacific Foods Distribution Center in Ontario, California, according to Kaminskas.

The Connecticut PV solar installation isn’t Whole Foods" only Earth-friendly project either. The natural products retailer has three other solar installations in the Northeast: two in New Jersey and one in Rhode Island. "We are also involved in other "green" projects," says McDonnell. "For example, we compost organic materials at various locations across the country. Composting is a waste management alternative that is highly superior to traditional disposal methods such as land filling. It keeps vital nutrients circulating in our ecosystem and methane out of the atmosphere," she says.

CCEF has a number of programs that encourage businesses and communities to get excited about renewable energy. CCEF, funded by a surcharge on residents" electric bill, underwrites such efforts as the Solar PV Rebate Program, which helps homeowners, non-profits and governmental organizations pay for small-scale PV systems. Rebates can be up to $25,000. "We also have programs that educate school children on renewable energy, and encourage them to raise support within their communities. It’s a great thing to see," says Dondy.

Are other states doing as much as Connecticut? Some are doing more. California just enacted a law (which failed in the legislature for three previous years) that secures $3.2 billion in rebates for one million solar roofs. In addition, the California Energy Commission recently awarded a three-year, $1.2 million grant to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the development of cool roof technology, an initiative that can cut a building’s cooling costs by 20 percent.

Volunteers turn out for a Solar Energy International event.

In the Midwest, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF) is giving $200,000 in grants for the installation of PV systems on the rooftops of 14 area schools. The ICECF is also joining forces with the Foundation for Environmental Education in developing classroom curriculums that educate children on the benefits of renewable energy using the newly installed panels for demonstrations in math and science classes. And in Paonia, Colorado, Solar Energy International has opened a solar-electric training facility that teaches employees how to build and operate PV panels.

Rising interest in solar power isn’t just in the U.S. Europe has some of the world’s most ambitious energy plans. Most European nations are signatories of the Kyoto Protocol calling for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. And the European Union is attempting to reduce its carbon emissions to eight percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Germany, a frontrunner in photovoltaic energy (see our cover story July/August 2006), is home to the world’s largest solar electric system. With 57,600 solar panels, the Bavaria Solarpark produces an impressive 10 megawatts of power.

Travis Bradford’s latest book, Solar Revolution, The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry (MIT Press, $24.95), notes that Germany is setting up a broad-based alternative-energy grid. "Not only has Germany been interested in promoting PV, but it has begun to phase out subsidies for coal and nuclear power," says Bradford. According to an agreement between the German government and electric companies in 2000, the last German nuclear power plant will close around 2020.

Will the U.S. ever be as solar-competitive as Europe? "I hope so," says Connecticut State Representative John "Corky" Mazurek (D-Wolcott/Southington). A member of the Energy and Technology Committee, Mazurek is pushing to stabilize the cost of electricity in the state. "Increasing electricity rates are affecting businesses, the workforce and senior citizens on fixed incomes," he says. "We are going to have to turn to renewable energy in the future to decrease our dependence on foreign companies that can increase the price of oil any time. It’s important that we support the development of solar power and back companies that are making the switch. We need to encourage investment in this field, so that we can use solar power as an alternative to electricity in the future."

Solar power (like wind, the fastest-growing form of energy) is enjoying a world-wide renaissance. Installations such as the Whole Foods PV installation are popping up across the country, but alternative energy is now only one percent of U.S. consumption. The dawning of the solar age is still ahead of us.

The National Solar Tour

The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) will host the 11th annual National Solar Tour on Saturday, October 7 and additional dates in many cities. It’s designed to give the public an opportunity to experience solar power, solar heating, wind power and green building technolo

gies first hand. The tour showcases thousands of homes and businesses across the country. It was started by Real Goods creator John Schaeffer in 1991 and was picked up by the ASES in 1999. Attendance grew 33 percent between 2004 and 2005, according to Mike DiGrazia, ASES Tour Coordinator. "Last year we had 68,000 participants and this year we are expecting at least 90,000," he adds.

The tour’s style varies based on location, some organized as an open house, others as driving tours. It gives people the chance to talk to homeowners and experts about how solar technology works. The theme this year is Real Places for Real People. "We want to show the public that it is possible to make the switch to solar," says DiGrazia.

There are dozens of new tours popping up in states like Florida, California and Washington. "People are calling in all the time asking to get their house on the tour. They really want to show their neighbors how they can change their homes and lower their carbon footprints," DiGrazia says.

The National Solar Tour gives people an opportunity to visit "green" houses in their communities and see just what it takes to make the switch to solar. "Not everyone can afford PV panels on their homes, but this tour allows people to discover other ways to conserve energy, such as energy saving appliances," says DiGrazia. "We have to remember that energy independence starts at home." Go to www.nationalsolartour.org to look up tours in your area.

KATHLEEN O"NEILL is an intern at E Magazine.

Link to Whole Foods solar event video (Windows Media Player): www.remyc.com/solaronschools.html

CONTACT:

Americans for Solar Power

Connecticut Clean Energy Fund (860) 257-2336

Whole Foods Market(201) 969-0444

American Solar Energy Society (ASES)(303) 443-3130

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