New England grocery chain Big Y is taking the wraps off a 3-acre solar array in western Massachusetts next week, in what increasingly appears to be a race among grocers to see whether solar can actually generate a return on investment and not just good publicity.
The 2,178-panel Big Y array is expected to generate 750,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year at the 61-store chain's corporate offices and distribution center. That's about 15 percent of the facility's electricity consumption, according to Progressive Retailer. The chain didn't say how long it expected to the array to take to pay for itself.
Big Y's announcement on Thursday (June 20) comes on the heels of an announcement by IKEA that it plans to make the solar array on its Centennial, Colo., store the biggest array in the state; and another by Walgreens (NYSE:WAG) that it plans to more than double the number of its solar-equipped stores to 350. The obvious difference: Walgreens is a $68 billion chain. IKEA does $37 billion in revenue worldwide. Big Y does less than $2 billion in low-margin revenue at grocery stores in only two U.S. states.
That pushes Big Y's solar arrays out of the "eco-stunt for big retailers" category. Walgreens and IKEA can afford to do this for the PR value. Big Y can't, which suggests solar has progressed to the point that it not only has a theoretical ROI, but will actually pay for itself even in places that aren't Florida and Southern California.
If Big Y—which already has solar arrays on two of its stores—can demonstrate the financial case for solar on store roofs at a regional grocery chain, that sets up an interesting problem for any chain that's somewhere between Walgreens' and Big Y's size. If solar pays for itself and you have standalone stores as far north as Boston or Chicago, it won't be long before you have to explain to shareholders why you're not saving money using it.
- See this Progressive Grocer story
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