Here comes the sun, the wind and tidal currents too.
This past year’s skyrocketing fossil fuel costs have caused supermarkets to look at alternative energy sources to power some of the operations in their stores and warehouses. With all of those juice-guzzling freezers, refrigerated cases, air conditioning units, rotisseries, bakery ovens, thermal heat lamps, electronic cash registers, 24/7 lighting, electric doors and neon signs, it’s a downright necessity.
“Retailers want economic security, not so much to beat today’s electric costs, but to have some assurance that 10 years from now they will be paying the same rate,” says James Fugitte, chairman and CEO of Wind Energy Corp. the Elizabethtown, Ky.-based firm that developed a unique wind turbine that H-E-B is testing at its Weslaco, Texas, warehouse.
Wind Energy’s turbines don’t look anything like those charming Dutch windmills dotting Holland’s landscape or their contemporary gangly airplane-propeller-looking modern counterparts. Rather, it is a state-of-the-art cylindrical vertical axis that begins generating electricity with a wind speed as low as four miles per hour.
Fugitte touts the advantages of Wind Energy’s turbines. “First and foremost, it’s much more aesthetically pleasing than a propeller system. Secondly, it doesn’t vibrate or make noise and isn’t harmful to wildlife and that makes it very desirable for mounting in an urban area near where people live.
“The nature of the project is to develop a system that will provide H-E-B with a reliable source of electricity somewhere near the current per hour kilowatt cost,” Fugitte says, adding that because the San Antonio-based chain also operates in Mexico, where there is a much lower level of reliability, H-E-B is “aware of the value of having more than one source of electricity.”
The test began Oct. 1 and will run for 18 to 24 months. It includes two 190-foot meteorology towers placed on either side of the turbine to help gather data at different intervals. Power generated is going directly into the warehouse. If it proves successful, H-E-B may consider adding units to its stores.
“We’re trying to determine how much electricity it can produce,” says Shelley Parks, spokesperson, South Texas Region, for H-E-B. “We’re interested in offsetting electrical costs, keeping our prices low and leaving less of a carbon footprint.”
The chain is investigating whether power generated from wind turbines can run cash registers during blackouts, as it operates in hurricane-prone areas. “The most important thing for H-E-B to have power to its front end and cashier’s station,” Parks says. “While it is very expensive for us to lose [perishable] product when we don’t have electricity, in order for us to stay open and help our customers with even dry grocery items, we’ve got to be able to ring them up.”
LET THE RIVER FLOW
H-E-B is not the only chain looking at unconventional alternative energy formats. In New York, a Gristedes store on Main Street on Roosevelt Island is getting part of its power from turbines set up in the adjacent East River, which isn’t technically a river, but rather a tidal straight. “This really isn’t being done anywhere else in the world,” says Roger Smith, CEO of Verdant Power, which installed the turbines and is also headquartered on Roosevelt Island. “There are developers in the United Kingdom and Canada who are building systems for use out in the ocean in large tidal systems, but this is unique.”
The flow of the water drives the turbines, creating kinetic hydro power, similar to a windmill, Smith explains. “The water in the East River is about 35 feet deep and we have 5 meter rotors that are a little over 16 feet. Each turbine is rated at 35 kilowatts, but they can deliver more than that occasionally, going up to 60 or 70 kilowatts, depending on the flow of the water,” he says.
Cables lead from the turbines to a small control room, which is right next to Gristedes, which then leads to the electrical grid in front of the supermarket. Power generated by the turbines is generating about 10% of the store’s power and helping power a neighboring parking garage.
The test is using two demonstration turbines to show operational performance and the environmental impact on the few fish that call the murky East River home. Verdant Power is putting together an application that will allow it to install 30 of the turbines next year, allowing it to potentially deliver all of the store’s power.
RUNNING ON FUEL CELLS
Environmentally conscious Whole Foods Market has long been a proponent of renewable energy, so it wasn’t surprising when the Austin, Texas-based natural food chain teamed with UTC Power to install an ultra-clean fuel cell at its Glastonbury, Conn. store.
“We are always looking to reduce our impact on the environment,” says Kathy Loftus, global leader, sustainable engineering, maintenance and energy for Whole Foods. “Together with UTC Power and the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, we’ve designed a combined cooling, heating and power system using a quiet, highly energy-efficient fuel cell that will reduce our carbon footprint dramatically.”
The 46,0000-square-foot-store opened in March and generates 50% of its electricity and heat and nearly 100% of its hot water on-site using fuel cell technology. The fuel cell is capable of producing 200 kilowatts of standby power if there’s a grid failure, enabling the store to operate without disruption in event of a blackout.
Similar cells have been installed at a Price Chopper in Albany, N.Y., and in a Star Market in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“This is one of the most exciting sectors for us because of the economics of these businesses,” says Rob Roche, marketing and applications manager, UTC Power, a division of United Technologies, based in South Windsor, Conn. “They are energy intense, their margins are fairly slim and the business is ultra competitive, so what they can save on the operating cost side is of great significance.”
A 400 Kilowatt unit costs from $1.5 to $2 million installed, depending on if it is a retrofit or new installation, Roche says, and federal and state incentives can reduce that cost substantially. The lifespan of a unit is about 10 years.
The heat generated by fuel cells can be used to heat the hot water used by the store and even piped under the sidewalks to prevent ice from forming in the winter, Roche says. That helps the environment by eliminating the use of salt. Hot water can also be piped under the frozen foods aisle. “If you want your clients to stay in the refrigerated foods aisle longer, you’re going to need a little burst of heat to keep them comfortable,” he says. “The waste heat from fuel cells can be used locally to heat those zones either by air ducts or hot water tubing in the floor, which is known as hydroponic heating.”
Whole Foods is using solar energy at its stores in Cheshire, Conn.; Providence, R.I., and Edgewater and Ridgewood, N.J. The chain teamed with Beltsville, Md.-based Sun Edison to develop and manage the solar photovoltaic (PV) systems placed on its roofs. Whole Foods purchases the solar energy from Sun Edison as a service, under long-term predictably price rates, which are equal to or less than retail rates.
“Since we don’t have any fuel, there’s no volatility in our costs, so Whole Foods can literally lock in their rate,” says Brian Jacolick, general manager, Americas, at Sun Edison. “The rate they are paying today can be the same rate they pay 18 or 20 years from now. We’ve solved the store manager’s problem of having to figure out what his budgeted cost for electricity is going to be for next year, and three or four years after that.”
The amount of electricity generated by the PV cells depends on the size of the roof space available. At a Wal-Mart Supercenter, where Sun Edison has also installed units, it can supply half of the store’s energy; at Whole Foods, the figure is closer to 20%.
Unlike wind power and fuel cells, solar only works during the day, but Jacolick sees that as a key benefit. “The utility charges you when you use your electricity too and the most expensive electricity is during the day,” during peak demand, he says. “Solar offsets the most expensive electricity and really helps the utility from a distribution and transmission side.”
The units used by Sun Edison have a lifespan of about 40 years and are maintained by the utility. “We have an online monitoring system, 24/7, 365 days a year that we meter and monitor these units,” Jacolick says. “We own these systems and we want to make sure that the power is on as high as possible. We have a vested interest with the client in making sure the unit operates correctly and we don’t use any subcontractors.”
Operating a leased store in a regional shopping mall prevents Metcalfe’s Sentry Foods from installing solar panels and windmills on its building, but that still hasn’t prevented the Madison, Wis.-based independent from ditching the fossil fuels. “We went 100% green powered around the first of the year through our local utility Madison Gas & Electric,” says Tim Metcalfe, president. The store receives about 99.9% of its power from wind generated on wind farms and .01% solar that MG&E purchases from Madison residents who have solar panels on their roofs.
Metcalfe jumped at the chance to participate in the utility’s green energy program, even though it costs about 10% more than traditional power. “Grocery stores are some of the largest users of energy, and if we can take this big amount of energy away from coal, the reduction of the carbon footprint is unbelievable,” Metcalfe says. “We felt it was the right thing to do. It fits our customers and what their values are,” he says. “We’re using it as kind of a marketing ploy for us to communicate to our customers that by shopping at our store it will help you to continue to reduce your personal carbon imprint.”
That further helps set Metcalfe’s apart from the competition. “One of the reasons we did it was the advertising and the fact that we could promote it in our store and differentiate ourselves,” Metcalfe says. “It is just the right thing to do, and it is leadership. MG&E can look at our example and then encourage other businesses to do it,” he says, adding that as more customers get on board that 10% premium will drop as more power is transferred to wind.
Experts expect the development of wind and solar to take off now that alternative energy tax credits have been included in the $850 billion banking bailout bill. “We’re looking for the same incentives that were available for solar to be available for small wind development,” says Eric Lovely, the North American marketing executive, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., for Proven Energy, an East Kilbride, Scotland-based manufacturer of wind turbines. “Grocery stores are certainly a sector that can take advantage of that because they’ve got large amounts of space and use plenty of energy.”
In England, Proven Energy has installed turbines in the parking lot of a Sainsbury store. Lovely says his company’s turbines would be ideal for American supermarkets, where they can generate energy to run the store’s parking lot lights and exterior signage. “The base of the tower would take up one parking spot, or even a large light pole. Because the foundation is all underground, the footprint of the tower is fairly small,” he says.
Proven Energy sells turbines in 12-, 18- and 30-foot rotor diameters. “The 12-foot one would generate about 5,000 kilowatt hours a year with a wind resource of about 12 MPH,” Lovely says. “The 18-foot would provide about 10,000 kilowatt hours and the 30-foot about 30,000 kilowatt hours.”
Wind energy is more efficient than solar in northern climates, Lovely says. “For areas in the Midwest and anywhere that has a good wind resource, wind has more power available for the amount of space it takes up compared to solar. It is more power dense,” he says.
But solar is ideal in hot sunny climates, like Southern California. It is especially feasible on large, multi-acre roofs, like supermarket distribution centers. And that’s exactly what Tesco did at its Riverside, Calif. distribution facility. The British operator of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market installed solar panels on the roofs of its 400,000-square-foot warehouse and 245,000-square-foot cold storage facility.
“The solar panels were glued down on a PVC insulated roof and are new hybrid solar panels that you can physically walk on, as long as you don’t turn and rotate,” says Ronald Wald, project manager in the Newport Beach, Calif. office of The Facility Group, the Smyrna, Ga.-based engineering firm that designed the facility.
The flat panels generate energy even on overcast days and were installed as a component of the roofing. “That way you keep your warranty,” Wald says.
Tesco has been happy with the solar panels, Wald says. “They’ve been quite impressed with the system. They are a pretty green company and they wanted to make sure they were environmentally friendly,” he says.
Southern California Edison, the utility serving greater Los Angeles, is proposing placing solar panels on 150 warehouse roofs, totaling some two square miles. “This is valuable Southern California real estate that is not being otherwise used,” says Gil Alexander, a spokesperson for the Rosemead, Calif.-based utility. Southern California Edison believes it can generate PV electric for $3.50 per installed watt, half of the current rate, by leasing the rooftops and developing a cookie cutter pattern of installation. The electricity will be fed into the general grid, increasing system reliability.
“If we continue to be successful, we believe it will transform the marketplace for large rooftop solar installations,” Alexander says. It can also be an extra revenue source for warehouse operators, including supermarket distribution centers. “The way it works, we lease the roof and send them a check every month.”
In today’s tight economic times, that’s an offer that’s hard to refuse.