By David Bennett, Senior Editor
When it comes to designing and powering new stores, convenience retailers are always looking for measures to lower electrical bills. Even retrofitting existing locations with energy-efficient equipment is routine.
There’s a much smaller group of retailers that are connecting to alternative energy providers—a list of providers that continues to grow partly because of state-sponsored incentives.
Techniques and technology developed to harness solar energy have reached new levels of efficiency and affordability, resulting in more budget-conscious businesses switching over to solar energy. However, such energy options remain largely unknown within the c-store industry.
That is slowly changing, however.
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based Stewart’s Stores is the biggest c-store chain arguably to incorporate a significant solar energy program. The company today operates 337 shops, 17 of which are supported by a remote net-metering system powered by solar technology in the town of Halfmoon, N.Y. The Halfmoon Project, completed in 2016, includes a solar array of more than 1,700 panels.
Panels were installed on the roof of the company’s 17 store locations, and are powered by a dedicated solar plant.
The 582-kilowatt Halfmoon Project, undertaken by Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective and New York City solar developer, EnterSolar, is the first-ever shared solar farm in the state of New York—under new policies approved by the state’s Public Service Commission.
Maria D’Amelia, Stewart’s spokesperson, said there are a few reasons why the retailer chose to diversify its power capabilities with solar. In addition to battling the volatility of rising gas prices, the project offers Stewart’s an opportunity to engage in a cleaner energy solution.
“The rooftop project has been particularly effective as our plant’s peak demand is when solar output is at its greatest; resolving power distribution problems of the grid,” D’Amelia said. “We are continually tracking how much energy we’re generating and can say our expectations have been met. So, you could call our solar projects a shining success.”
The U.S. leads the North American solar market. New solar hotspots in the nation include the growing market in the Northeast region, which includes the states of New York and New Jersey.
Stewart’s isn’t the first c-store chain in New York to employ solar.
Crosby’s convenience store chain, based in Lockport, N.Y., a few years ago installed two solar-powered systems, including a 110 panel, 29-kilowatt solar energy pilot in the city of Amherst.
With 66 panels on the gas pump canopy and another 44 on the store’s roof, the green initiative has reduced the convenience store’s energy consumption by at least 15% yearly.
Over the next five years, New York—home to Stewart’s and Crosby’s—is expected to install more than 3,000 megawatts of solar electric capacity, ranking the state fifth in the U.S. over that time span. This is enough to power 492,000 homes and more than six times the amount of solar capacity installed in New York State over the last five years.
Graham Smith is the founder and CEO of Open Energy, a provider of debt financing solutions for commercial solar projects. Open Energy, which provided the financing for the Halfmoon Project, is part of a new breed of companies helping drive the U.S. solar market, which is gaining added support via state legislation in states such as New York.
Considering that businesses can save 10-20% on their electrical bills, solar is a sensible option, if the return on investment is there,” Smith said.
“It’s a huge, growing trend. Smith said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Stewart’s Shops is committed to making many of its store locations greener, when the opportunities come along.
“For us, one of the most noticeable initiatives may be the continuous upgrades to LED lighting inside and outside of our shops. We also have an extensive recycling program to minimize waste,” said D’Amelia. “More than four and a half million pounds of cardboard, office paper, plastic, metal and light bulbs are recycled annually. We are using reusable containers to transport product, offering a number of reusable coffee mugs in our shops, and our to-go cups are made from paper rather than Styrofoam.”
Stewart’s is likely on the right track, especially since energy sustainability has become a consumer consideration of younger Americans, said Rebekah Matheny, an assistant professor of interior design within the Department of Design at the Ohio State University.
“When we look at research on Millennial and Gen Z consumers, we uncover that those generations put their spending power behind their personal beliefs, of which environmental and social consciousness of brands leads the way,” Matheny said. These generations are smart and responsible consumers. They do their homework, they know where and how the products they are purchasing are manufactured and they care about fair trade, living wages, child labor issues, working conditions, materiality and the generosity of the brand. In other words, they care how the retailer is participating in the greater good of the environment and society, from a local to global impact.”
Other states such as Texas are also providing companies financial incentives to go greener.
San Antonio-based Nooner’s has installed solar panels at eight c-stores. With two more locations currently under construction, Sean Nooner, president of Nooner Holdings Ltd., said its commitment to solar power has shaved off an average of $900-$1,000 from its monthly electricity costs.
“Our investigation and desire to install green energy is what led us to solar,” Nooner said. “We have been installing solar since 2012. All of our current stores have solar and the next two stores have already been contracted to have solar installed as part of the ground up construction. We even have solar on our office building.”
At most locations, Nooner’s has installed solar panels on the roof and the canopy.
The average cost of each complete solar add-on is $260,000. However, because of authorized tax abatements and other incentives granted by the state of Texas, the final cost of each project has ended up being approximately $65,000, Nooner said.
It’s a long-term investment that should address electrical costs, going forward.
“Energy prices are only going to go up, so saving a block of kilowatts each month will pay back more over time,” Nooner said.
The U.S. Energy Department said in a 2016 report that the cost of getting power from wind fell more than 40% from 2008 to 2015, and solar panel prices dropped more than 60% during that period.
Renewable energy accounts for about 15% of the electricity generated in the U.S.
President Donald Trump also has called for reviving the coal industry, which has struggled in part because of the rise of renewable energy. Still, the growing momentum of renewable energy keeps retailers such as Stewart’s scouting for greener prospects.
“We continue to seek potential sites for remote net metering projects as long as a reasonable return is determined, both financially and environmentally,” said D’Amelia. “We have looked at a remote hydro system that would allow us to put charging station in a few dozen shops, but we have encountered some regulatory resistance.”