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GREEN ENERGY SYSTEMS MAY HAVE A LOT OF cachet these days, but when are they financially viable for retailers?

There are numerous elements that go into answering that question, said Willis McCullough, national program director, Energy Efficiency Services, an engineering firm in Hopkinton, N.H., who spoke last month at the Food Marketing Institute's Energy & Store Development Conference in Atlanta.

On-site, combined heat-and-power (CHP) systems — such as fuel cells, solar panels, wind turbines, reciprocating engines and microturbines — can offer a number of financial advantages, he noted, including significant energy savings through increased efficiency compared to the electrical grid along with both usable heat and electricity. “It's possible to lock in energy rates,” he said. They may also provide constant power to support business continuity while reducing carbon emissions and possibly qualifying a store for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points.

But retailers need to be aware of a number of mitigating factors, including installation price, lifecycle cost, reliability, durability, noise/vibration, regulations, power density and fuel flexibility. For example, McCullough said, fuel cells are costly and solar panels are even more expensive; on the other hand solar and wind installations do not require much maintenance while fuel cells need a constant supply of fuel. But fuel cells are extremely reliable while solar panels rely on the sun.

With a relatively small footprint, fuel cells have a high energy density, meaning the amount of power generated in a given space. By contrast, solar and wind installations need a considerable amount of space to generate their power, he said.

McCullough stressed that electrical power alone will often not bring a satisfactory return for a CHP system; it's important to leverage the waste heat as well to heat water and air in a store.

Other key factors include federal and state financial incentives as well as utility and local requirements, “which can affect your grand opening,” he said.