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Sustainability Excellence Starts With Solar Power

Sustainability Excellence Starts With Solar Power

Looking at the environmental activities pursued by the chain, wholesaler and independent winners of SN's first annual Sustainability Excellence Awards, I was interested to see what the three companies had in common, besides a general commitment to resource conservation.

One common element is that all three companies — Safeway, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) and PCC Natural Markets, respectively — have created an executive position dedicated to sustainability. At Safeway, that position is held by Joe Pettus; at UNFI by Tom Dziki; and at PCC by Diana Crane. For a detailed description of the award-winning work done by these individuals, turn to the Technology section, beginning on Page 53.

Another environmental thread running through these companies is that they have all invested in solar energy panels for their buildings — stores in the case of Safeway and PCC, and distribution centers at UNFI. This is a fact worth considering further.

Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind have emerged as an increasingly important alternative to greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels — and therefore at least a partial solution to the two huge problems associated with those fuels, global warming and the dependence on imported oil.

With millions of acres of flat rooftop real estate at their disposal, food retailers and wholesalers are well positioned to leverage the power of the sun via solar panel installations. As a recent New York Times article observed, if Wal-Mart Stores, which has begun putting solar panels on the roofs of stores and warehouses, eventually equipped all of its Sam's Club and Wal-Mart locations, the resulting solar acreage would roughly equal the size of Manhattan.

But most retailers have yet to harness the sun's rays, and even the pioneers have generally converted fewer than 10% of their stores. The reason, of course, is mostly cost. According to the Times article, the price of a solar installation for a store the size of a typical Wal-Mart is $4 million to $6 million. Over time, especially if utility costs continue to rise, that could be recouped. But most retailers agree the key to jumping the cost hurdle is support from the federal government and the states.

Safeway and UNFI have benefited from the generous incentive grants for solar power provided by California and Connecticut. One hopes that other states will offer similar incentives, and perhaps state grocery groups can help persuade them. At the federal level, the tax credit for renewable energy is set to expire at the end of the year, making industry lobbying efforts in support of the credit's renewal imperative.

Fortunately, the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., is on the case. “FMI strongly supports this tax credit as more companies are investing in solar and wind power,” said John J. Motley III, FMI's senior vice president of government and public affairs. “FMI is urging Congress to approve this [renewal].”

If it does, perhaps more retailers will follow in the footsteps of Safeway, UNFI and PCC.