Typically when you think of grocery stores, the words “environmentally friendly” do not come to mind. Electric lights brighten large box stores, often 24 hours a day. Refrigerators keep food cool, and who hasn’t wished they brought a sweater when walking through the meat department? Yet, as a consumer, there aren’t many options available for reducing our environmental impact beyond bringing our own shopping bags and trying to buy local produce. Lucky for us, grocery chains have taken matters into their own hands, attempting to lessen the impact that their stores have on the environment. Some major chains have turned to fuel cell technology to help reduce their carbon footprint and their dependence on the electrical grid. Fuel cells provide clean, quiet, and reliable power to an industry that cannot afford to experience electricity outages. Stores are using fuel cells to generate heat, hot water, electricity, and even to power vehicles.
Fuel cell power systems are a great way for large grocery stores to realize environmental improvements on multiple fronts. Fuel cells can provide 50-60% of a large supermarket’s energy needs. Since fuel cells do not emit greenhouse gases, the result is an immediate reduction in emissions from store operations. Stores also benefit from the creation of waste heat, which can be used to heat the store in winter, as well as run air conditioning systems. Since heat and water are the by-products of a fuel cell, stores can generate almost 100% of their hot water needs from an on-site fuel cell. Fuel cells provide cost savings in the long run due to decreased dependency on utility’s electric power, and provide important back up power in case of outages. Refrigeration is vital to keeping products fresh, and reliable back up power can prevent spoilage.
Whole Foods Market has taken significant steps to reduce their chain’s environmental impact and has voluntarily taken steps to ensure that their new stores have smaller a carbon footprint. In 2008, Whole Foods became the first grocery store to generate 50% of its power on-site at a new store in Connecticut that features a UTC Power fuel cell power system. The fuel cell generates 50% of the store’s power, 100% of the hot water, and waste heat is used in the heating and cooling system. The fuel cell also provides back up power in case of a grid outage. Carbon emissions are reduced by 90 metric tons a year and NOx emissions are reduced by 2 metric tons a year. The store also saves more than 4 million gallons of water by using the fuel cell. The system works so well that Whole Foods is installing one in its new store opening in fall 2009 in Dedham, Massachusetts. The Dedham store will house a 400 kW UTC Power fuel cell system that will meet 90% of the store’s electricity needs. The fuel cell will also provide hot water, heating and cooling, and back up power.
In June of this year Price Chopper opened a new store in Colonie, New York that was carefully designed to incorporate many environmentally friendly features, earning it the highest EPA level of green certification ever given to a grocery store. The building features a UTC Power fuel cell system that not only generates 60% of the store’s power, but also captures waste heat and water to increase the overall efficiency and reduce negative environmental impacts.
Vehicle emissions are a large contributor to the overall carbon footprint of a grocery store. Not only do customers have to drive to reach the store, but food products must be brought in, often from very far distances. Frequently overlooked are the emissions from warehouse operations, which typically use battery powered forklifts. But, clean and quiet fuel cell hybrid forklifts are making a debut in this market, and the emission reductions are significant. Argonne National Laboratory estimates that a fuel cell forklift reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 63% over battery systems. Fuel cell forklifts also offer multiple cost savings for warehouse operators. When compared to battery powered forklifts, fuel cells have fewer moving parts, and thus require less overall maintenance; this means each forklift can be operational for more time each year. Fuel cell forklifts provide increased efficiency because they last longer between refueling: 6 hours for a battery vs. 12 -14 hours for a fuel cell. Fuel cells deliver consistent power, whereas batteries are heavy and drain as they are used. Fuel cells eliminate the need for battery charging and storage, leaving more warehouse space for products. All of these differences can add up to major cost savings for warehouse operators.
Two chains have committed to buying fuel cell forklifts for their distribution centers. H-E-B is in the process of installing an on-site hydrogen generator and fueling station for 14 Nuvera Power Edge forklifts that will be delivered in September. The fuel cell forklifts will replace traditional lead acid battery forklifts in their San Antonio Perishable Distribution Center. Central Grocers has ordered 220 Yale forklifts, powered by PlugPower’s GenDrive fuel cell, which will be used in a new distribution center being built in Joliet, Illinois. Air Products will provide liquid hydrogen storage compression and multiple indoor fueling stations at this facility. Central Grocers estimates their carbon emissions will be reduced by one-third through the use of fuel cell forklifts, and that they will see a cost savings of $1.5 million dollars over the next 10 years.
Federal and state programs offer grants or tax incentives to encourage companies to install fuel cells and other renewable energy systems that provide environmental savings. Both Whole Foods and Price Chopper have taken advantage of state programs. The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund awarded Whole Foods a $940,000 for the purchase of a fuel cell. The grant was part of a larger Connecticut initiative to aid companies in the installation of renewable energy production. For their new Dedham, Massachusetts, store Whole Foods received a $400,000 design and construction grant from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources’ Renewable Energy Trust. Both grant programs are funded through renewable energy surcharges on utility customer’s bills. Price Chopper worked closely with the New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) while designing and building their new green-building grocery store. Through their cooperation NYSERDA granted more than $1 million dollars in financial incentives to Price Chopper.
The Federal government also has programs to promote the use of renewable energy generation. On July 8th the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) of up to $40 million dollars for research, development, and demonstration of combined heat and power systems, like the fuel cell power systems installed by Whole Foods and Price Chopper. In addition, the Emergency Economics Stabilization Act of 2008 extended and revised the Fuel Cell Investment Tax Credit until 2016. The Tax Credit allows purchasers to write off 30%, up to $3,000 per kilowatt for industrial purchasers and $1,000 per kilowatt for residential purchasers, from the cost of a qualified fuel cell from their tax liability. The Tax Credit also includes a write off of 30% for the cost of installing hydrogen infrastructure, up to $200,000. Recently, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Energy announced a new program where applicants would agree to forgo tax credits down the line for an immediate reimbursement of a portion of the property expense. An estimated $3 billion is allocated for the development of renewable energy projects around the country, including fuel cells.
Although you still might not think of grocery stores as being environmentally friendly, fuel cell technology has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the industry produces. Next time you are at your local store enquire about their power generation, perhaps the next grocery store to install a fuel cell power system will be right down the block.