Here comes the sun: How America’s brightest businesses are saving money going solar

The amount of sunlight that hits Earth in one hour could produce enough energy to power the planet for a year.

When you think about how the world’s biggest businesses are managing their utilities these days, that statistic really hits home. The goal, in time, is net-zero energy, meaning a the total annual amount of energy used by a building is roughly equal to the renewable energy generated on site. Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is taking us there.

In 2014, 87 percent of IKEA’s facilities were powered with solar energy, alongside 43 percent of GM facilities, 24 percent of Johnson & Johnson facilities, 21 percent of REI facilities and 17 percent of Costco facilities. With 254 separate solar systems in use nationwide, 26 percent of Wal-Mart’s electricity was generated from renewable sources.

Alabama industries are making the leap to solar panels as well. In 2014, Cullman-based steel company Apel Stel Corporation hired a solar company to install a 340kWh PV system that met 98 percent of their energy needs. As Google starts construction on its newest data center at a former TVA coal plant site in rural Jackson County, the final product will be 100 percent powered by the sun and wind.

The bottom line for these flourishing businesses: Why be tied to the fluctuations in the price of fossil fuels when the price of solar is so predictable? Not only is installing solar PV a step toward sustainability, it cuts operational costs—freeing up capital to create more jobs, lower the price of your goods, expand your operations or put more money in your employees’ paychecks.

So if installing a PV system has costs on the front end, how do you finance one and when do the savings hit?

Locally, AlabamaSAVES offers financing for renewable energy projects or energy-efficient fixtures and retrofits with interest rates as low as one percent. The state’s first energy revolving loan program for commercial and industrial renewable energy projects, it has granted loans for energy projects to the Dixie Group’s yarn plant in Roanoke, Huntsville Wholesale Furniture, Gibson Oil, St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile and Gulf Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Foley. Cozy Cove Farm in Gurley, Ala., used an AlabamaSAVES loan to reduce operating costs by adding solar power to its alpaca and llama operations in 2013.

Federal and state incentives include a 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit (in effect until Dec. 30, 2016) and rebates for companies that install, develop or finance a solar system.

Then there’s the savings associated with net metering. When your solar panels are connected to a public-utility power grid, you receive a credit for any surplus energy you soak up from the sun but don’t need yourself. For example, if the PV system on your roof generates more electricity than the building needs during daylight hours, the meter will simply run backward at night, or save the credit for a day when your energy output exceeds its intake. It’s like rollover minutes on a cell phone, but with your electric bill.

So what other businesses are benefitting from adding PV technology to their energy portfolios? Macy’s. McGraw Hill. Staples. Walgreens. L’Oreal. Target. Bed Bath & Beyond. Wal-Mart plans to double the number of on-site solar energy projects at its U.S. stores and distribution centers by 2020. According to energy experts, their balance sheets say it all: it is not just financially feasible—it is financially smart—to go solar.

Over the last decade, the average rate of electricity for commercial users has increased by more than 20 percent. At the same time, the price of solar panels has dropped by about 90 percent. By some predictions, solar costs will drop by another 40 percent in the next two years, taking installation costs down by similar margins. For the first time ever, the cost of solar is competing with traditional sources of energy.

So what’s next by way of solar technologies? In the Netherlands, a new design of transparent, colorful solar panels called luminescent solar concentrators are doubling as roadside noise barriers along a major highway near Den Bosch. Dr. Michael Debije, the Eindhoven University of Technology professor directing their development, hopes that because they are cheaper and prettier to look at, they will someday be used to turn everyday architectural items into power sources. A park bench that doubles as a charging station, for example.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have figured out how to get a solar panel to create electricity not just out of light but also heat. Making use of wavelengths that ordinarily go to waste, the team inserted an absorber-emitter device in the panel’s outer layer. A combination of solar PV and solar thermal systems, the design is more efficient than conventional solar cells and may make it easier to retain the energy for future use, because heat is easier to store than electricity. So bring on those hot Southern summers, because the future of energy efficiency is here.

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