(When) the price is right
Rooftop solar technologies appeal to more cold food processors and warehouses.
By Bob Garrison
Know your TV game shows? “The Price is Right” has contestants guess the price of an item and the goal is to bid closest to the object’s actual dollar amount without going over.
Of course, energy costs are not the stuff of fun and games for cold food processors and public refrigerated warehouses (PRWs). Nor has it has been easy to calculate the true price and payback of solar panel technologies as a means of reducing annual electric costs.
One of the first PRWs to invest in solar was Hall’s Warehouse Corp., a South Plainfield, N.J., company serving the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic markets from six area facilities. In 2007, Hall’s installed a 1.4 megawatt (MW) system with 8,000 solar panels on the company’s South Plainfield warehouse.
At the time, President Bruce Jayne said Hall’s spent about $3 million annually for electricity. He estimated that the $9 million system would produce about one-tenth of the facility’s annual electric needs and he projected a four- to six-year payback. Figured into the equation was more than $4 million in state and federal rebates and tax credits.
Three years later, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods asked Patrick Sahradnik, Hall’s energy resources manager, for an update.
“Our first year using our 1.4 MW installation met expectations,” he says. “We saw immediate reduction in our electric bills and drastically reduced our demand on the grid. There were no maintenance issues or any problems whatsoever with the photovoltaic system. By reducing our consumption and peak demand we were able to save roughly 16 percent of our annual electric costs.”
Sahradnik notes that the project is on schedule to meet a five-year return on investment and although Hall’s original vendor is no longer around (Ted Turner’s DT Solar, Branchburg, N.J., merged into First Solar, Tempe, Ariz.), it hasn’t affected service. Meanwhile, Hall’s added another 1.8 MW solar system through an agreement with EnXco, San Diego, across two more rooftops in South Plainfield. That system was operational in January 2009.
“There have been many changes in the technologies used today,” says Sahradnik. “The size and weight of the panels has been reduced by nearly 60 percent. Silicon is no longer the leading material used in the panels and this has helped to significantly reduce the costs of owning a photovoltaic installation. There are thin film panels, laminates and cylindrical modules, to name a few. Inverters have become smaller and become less expensive. We also have the ability to monitor solar production in real time.”
Elsewhere, other refrigerated and frozen food companies are getting into the game. They include:
General Mills. This Minneapolis-based food giant said this July that its Methuen, Mass., refrigerated Yoplait yogurt plant installed a solar panel system on its warehouse. Officials said the solar panels should generate enough electricity (110.7 kilowatts) supply nearly 80 percent of the warehouse’s summertime power needs and 40 percent of facility needs during the rest of the year. Overall, officials say they expect solar to reduce Methuen’s annual electric use by an average of 55 percent.
“The enthusiasm of the work force and partnership with state and local government led the way for us to install the solar panels,” said John Russett, energy manager in General Mills Supply Chain Operations group. “General Mills is committed to continuously improving its environmental performance.”
Officials said the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center gave General Mills an undisclosed rebate in conjunction with the project. Nexamp Inc., North Andover, Mass., designed and installed the panels.
Henningsen Cold Storage Co. In May, Henningsen, Hillsboro, Ore., said it installed a 200 kilowatt solar electric system on the roof of its public refrigerated warehouse in Gresham, Ore. The panels – installed by Portland’s Solar Nation Inc. – cover 32,479 square feet of pre-existing roof space. Officials said they expect the system to supply approximately 20 percent of the electrical energy needs for 145,000-square-foot operation.
Gresham is one of 10 Henningsen facilities in Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Idaho and Pennsylvania.
“Due to the nature of cold storage facilities, installing a solar-electric system on our rooftop was complicated – requiring special engineering, permitting, incentive applications and inspections,” noted Paul Henningsen, vice president of corporate development and engineering. “Solar Nation handled the complicated issues on our behalf – simplifying the entire process and allowing us to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity without disrupting our daily operations.”
United States Cold Storage. USCS, Voorhees, N.J., said it fitted its 79,000-square-foot Tulare (Calif.) North warehouse with 2,700 fixed tilt solar panels. Echoing Henningsen’s point, USCS Project Engineer Danny Dietrich says his company and partner BP Solar International, San Francisco, needed several months to ensure that the solar roofing system met various building codes, design requirements and governmental guidelines.
“Now we expect the Tulare solar array to generate 785,000 kWh of power per year – as much as 14 percent of the facility’s projected annual electricity needs,” says Dietrich.
R&FF talks with Patrick Sahradnik, energy resources manager at Hall’s Warehouse Corp., South Plainfield, N.J.
Q: What advice would you have for a company considering solar?
A: There are several conditions that need to be met for solar to be a sound financial investment. The first consideration involves the state where the facility is located and that state’s cost of electricity.
For example, I would recommend solar to any warehouse in New Jersey with adequate roof space and a large electricity demand. A company also would need to decide whether it wanted to buy its own solar panels or consider a power purchasing agreement. Lastly, I would advise anyone to “shop around” because there are lots of companies involved in the photovoltaic industry.
Q: Are there conditions where solar technologies would not make sense?
A: There are states where coal and other electricity production methods already offer extremely low electricity rates. There are other areas where there simply isn’t an abundance of sunny days. Understandably, there also are certain industries where electricity demand isn’t as high – such as those with smaller, ambient buildings.
I’ll note, too, that state and federal incentives had greatly changed since 2007 (when Hall’s first became involved). Facility owners should keep watching to determine how much financial help they will be able to receive.