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Pushing Solar: United Natural Foods

Tom Dziki has been getting a lot of phone calls from other wholesalers and retailers asking how United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) was able to successfully deploy solar panel systems on the roofs of two of its 19 distribution centers over the past year.

Based in Dayville, Conn., UNFI, the largest publicly traded wholesaler of natural and organic foods in the U.S., unveiled a 1.19-megawatt solar energy system at its natural foods distribution center in Rocklin, Calif., in October 2007 — and then two months later launched a 550-kilowatt system at its Dayville DC, the largest solar array in New England.

Dziki, UNFI's vice president of sustainable development, doesn't mind sharing his knowledge and experience with fellow distributors. “I advocate for sustainability,” he said. “I tell them, ‘This can work, you need to pay attention to this.’”

He sees a large amount of untapped potential for solar energy. “We have 6.2 million square feet of roof space in our company alone that gets sunlight all day long. Think of all the DCs out there around the country with wasted real estate that could be generating power.”

UNFI makes no bones about its commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. On its website the wholesaler spells out its vision, which includes assigning corporate leaders like Dziki to “research and implement sustainable practices.”

Those practices include opening up a DC 10 months ago in Ridgefield, Wash., that is about to receive either Gold or Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, and building a new DC in York, Pa., that is expected to be granted LEED certification. UNFI also runs a wide-ranging recycling program that extends from its DCs to its offices. “Green Teams” at each DC around the company look for new ways to reduce waste.

Through its participation in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay Transportation Partnership, UNFI has brought new efficiencies to its transportation fleet as well.

For its major solar energy deployments, its LEED-certified DCs and its overall commitment to conservation and energy savings, UNFI has been selected to receive the 2008 SN Sustainability Excellence Awards in the wholesaler category.


Keeping pace with the growth of frozen products in the natural and organic space, UNFI has devoted more space in its facilities to freezer coolers, which are energy-intensive. As a result, the solar panels at the California and Connecticut facilities are configured to serve refrigeration systems. Between 60% and 70% of the electrical energy driving refrigeration comes from the solar panels, said Dziki. Together, the two solar installations have generated more than 2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity so far — more than the 1.5 million kWh that was expected by this time, Dziki said.

Dziki declined to cite the cost of the solar panels, but he said that UNFI expects them to generate a payback in just over four years, helped by a roughly $2 million grant for each facility provided via state governments. With a 25-year warranty, “we should have more than 20 years of free electricity,” he said. “It's a hedge against future inflation on electricity.” But he acknowledged that without substantial government aid, “it's a much more challenging project.”

To further save energy at its DCs, UNFI has installed motion detectors on all lighting fixtures. And it is planning a pilot project to use hydrogen-powered fuel cells in forklift equipment rather than batteries.

Over the past few years, Dziki has brought UNFI's Green Team concept to its major DCs nationally. Made up of employees at each facility, the Green Team organizes cleanups, carpools, energy conservation programs, recycling awareness and the like. “We let the Green Teams dictate what they want to do,” he said.

UNFI's commitment to zero waste diverts a multitude of items — from paper, plastics, cardboard and aluminum to bulbs, batteries and electronic waste — away from landfills. Last year, the wholesaler recycled more than 900,000 pounds of shrink-wrap and 4 million pounds of cardboard. Some retailers receive products from UNFI in totes made from 100% recycled content. In UNFI's offices, all advertising publications are printed using vegetable-based ink and post-consumer recycled materials.

As a national company, UNFI faces the challenge of determining the recycling policy of each municipality and “figuring out a program to maximize its potential,” Dziki said. An even bigger challenge is finding facilities able to compost waste food, he added.

UNFI's involvement with SmartWay has enabled it to eliminate 15,836 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from deliveries in its Eastern Region. The program includes reductions in idling time, use of oil additives and fuel-saving wind deflectors on the roofs of truck cabs.