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Alternative Energy

Blazing a trail for a more sustainable, efficient industry

Produce professionals across the country are turning to alternative energy—such as solar and wind power—as the answer to saving time, money, and the planet.  Innovative measures have not only been proven successful in harnessing energy to help businesses operate more efficiently, but are effectively ‘greening’ the industry for lower environmental impact.  And although there are a number of creative endeavors, including Gills Onions using onion waste to power their operations and Dixon Ridge Farms generating power from walnut shells, we are limiting the scope of this article to solar and wind projects.

Following are a few examples of produce-related ingenuity in the use of alternative energy.

Here Comes the Sun

It is not a stretch to consider the sun as a viable source of energy.  Solar panels have been in existence for decades, and though their use has become more commonplace for both residential and commercial users, steep upfront investment costs and reliability have kept many from embracing the technology. 

Shipper and distributor SunFed, in Rio Rico, AZ, is taking sustainability to a whole new level by harnessing the power of sunlight.  Matt Mandel, vice president of sales and marketing, says SunFed recently completed a 418 kilowatt photovoltaic solar array (a collection of wire-connected solar modules) at the company’s main distribution facility, and was finishing a similar unit at their second facility.  In just two months of operation, Mandel reported the first installation had offset the equivalent of 147,000 pounds of carbon dioxide or the emissions from 7,500 gallons of gasoline. 

For John Burton, general manager of Peter Rabbit Farms in Coachella Valley, CA, the main criteria for moving forward on their 333 kilowatt solar panels—which services the grower-shipper’s custom cooler, were “the cost of energy, the cost of doing business, and the fact that virtually everyday there is sunshine.”  To Burton, the ability to implement a system that would make the business more efficient and eco-friendly was a “no-brainer.”

Burton’s move to installing solar was also prompted by a shorter turnaround time for achieving the company’s return on investment (ROI). “What really flipped the switch to go to solar,” he says, “was how much the payback had dropped.”  When he first began researching the possibility of using solar panels eight years ago, ROI was slated at 12 years; Burton’s current system is projected to pay back the costs of installation within just four years.

Blowing in the Wind

In addition to the sun as a natural energy source, there is also the wind.  Standing 238 feet high at Testa Produce, Inc. in Chicago (known as the Windy City) is a wind turbine with 70-foot-long blades that can be seen for miles. 

Installed in 2011, the turbine creates 750 kilowatts of power, generating 30 percent of Testa’s electricity needs.  And, according to Angela Bader, Testa’s marketing coordinator, there were over 40 days in the past year when the turbine provided 100 percent of the company’s energy needs.  On days when the turbine generated more power than necessary, Testa was able to sell it to the area’s local power supplier, Commonwealth Edison, part of Exelon Corporation.