Big-box retailers turning to solar power

Big-box stores, with their auto-centric locations and low density development, might not be the darlings of the environmental movement, but it is a building type that lends itself to solar power.
Chains such as IKEA and Canadian Tire have begun adding solar panels to their spacious rooftops to generate electricity from the sun.
“I think it’s a fantastic use of the space,” said Brendan Seale, IKEA Canada’s sustainability manager. “I think as we move more and more toward a sustainable future, that space on rooftops is going to be used creatively one way or the other, whether it’s solar PV (photovoltaics) or whether it's green roofing or rooftop gardens, and things like that.”
IKEA has three stores in the Greater Toronto Area — in Etobicoke, North York and Vaughan — equipped with solar panels. Seale said the solar equipment at these outlets produces enough electricity for 100 homes, yet it amounts to just five to seven per cent of what’s needed to power the stores.
The energy produced does not flow directly to the stores. Instead, IKEA sells the energy back to the provincial energy grid as part of an Ontario government program that buys energy produced through alternative means at above-market rates as a way to encourage investment in this type of infrastructure.
“The economics are certainly favourable, given the feed-in tariff program in Ontario,” Seale said. “We’re selling the power back into the grid and then the power that we use is cheaper. So it’s a simple mathematical equation for us that it’s a profitable thing to do.”
Cost and benefits
IKEA paid $4.6 million for the installation of 3,790 solar panels at the three stores and Seale said “we have seen better performance than we forecasted.”
Paul Pauze, president of SunRise Power in Peterborough, Ont., and a board member of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, said big-box retailers are increasingly realizing the untapped value of their big roofs.
“They typically have nice big rooftops,” Pauze said. “They’re in a business where they focus on profitability per square foot.”

IKEA store with rooftop solar
He said an average-sized big-box store in Ontario would cost about $1 million to outfit with solar panels, and the power generated would return about $150,000 annually.
With three of its 12 Canadian stores equipped with solar roofs, IKEA’s pace trails its U.S. endeavours, where solar panels are placed on 39 of its 44 stores.
Seale would not specify future plans to increase its solar power capacity in Canada, but he noted the Swedish-based chain’s goal to be energy-neutral globally by 2020, meaning it would be producing at least as much energy as it uses.
“We’re about a third of the way there today,” Seale said. “So what I would say is that you can expect significant investments to be made by the IKEA Group worldwide into renewable energy infrastructure.”
Canadian Tire has 27 stores in Ontario equipped with solar panels. Eight are currently hooked up to the grid and the remainder are awaiting approval from local power agencies.
Ontario subsidies
As with IKEA, Canadian Tire is not involved in such projects in Canada outside of Ontario as other provinces do not have the same kind of subsidy programs in place.
“We keep track of what’s going on in the rest of the provinces throughout Canada, and we’re monitoring whether they have feed-in tariff programs that may replicate the Ontario program,” said Joanne McMillin, Canadian Tire’s associate vice-president of business sustainability.
“And if they do, we’ll look at it from a business decision and then see if it’s the right opportunity for Canadian Tire to expand the program.”
McMillin says Canadian Tire’s use of solar energy makes sense for the company financially, fits with its environmental principles and might spark customer interest in the solar-related devices it sells for smaller scale use, such as to charge lawn mowers and garage-door openers.

Canadian Tire with rooftop solar
Big-box not so bad?
Seale said the use of solar panels by IKEA represents an opportunity for financial benefit and positive publicity, though he doesn’t see it as a way of “making amends” for other, less green aspects of big-box retailing.
“Big-box retailers of course have their challenges,” he said. “When it comes to big parking lots and being located outside of the city, I think a more direct response would be to offer customers more sustainable options for travelling to and from the stores.”
Seale noted that shuttle services are offered for some Toronto-area IKEAs, as well as designated parking spots for electric and hybrid vehicles.
As for Canadian Tire’s greening efforts beyond solar panels, corporate communications manager Joscelyn Dosanjh said the latest design of its stores have made great strides in the efficiency of its lighting and the use of construction materials with smaller environmental impact.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the leader among retailers in the U.S. in the deployment of solar energy equipment, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association. Walmart’s Canadian head office did not immediately respond to a request for information on its solar power endeavours in Canada.

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