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Two companies, one vision

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From The Organic Report, Spring 2011
By Jennifer Rose

At a first glance, Lundberg Family Farms and Alvarado Street Bakery (ASB) appear to be very different companies. Lundberg is a rice manufacturer; Alvarado makes bread.

A look at the companies’ core values, however, reveals that they have much more in common than meets the eye. Since their inception, both have been committed to conducting business in the most sustainable way possible. As Michael Girkout, president of ASB, notes, “We were a green company before ‘green’ was a popular term to use. We’ve always sought to run a business that was as sustainable as it was successful.” Jessica Lundberg agrees. “As long as we have been in business, we have focused on doing right by the environment and our employees.”

It is no surprise, then, that both companies have sought out opportunities to make their production facilities more energy efficient. At Lundberg, the search for renewable energy began with the purchase of renewable energy credits. “This was a good starting point, and served us well for several years, but we were convinced we could do better,” explains Lundberg. The company then investigated wind power, but realized that it was too variable to serve as a primary power source. It thus turned its attention to harnessing the power of the most abundant resource of Richvale, CA: the sun. 

Lundberg Family Farms solar panelsLundberg installed its first array of solar panels in 2006 at its rice drying facility. This was followed in 2007 by a second installation of higher wattage panels at the company’s cold storage warehouse. Together, these panels generated 584,000 kWh of solar power. In January 2010, Lundberg announced the opening of its newest solar-powered facility: a 37, 558 square-foot warehouse boasting 1690 230-watt solar panels that are expected to produce 500,000 kWH of green electricity, or enough electricity to power 44 American homes. The new panels will also boost the Farm’s solar energy production to 20 percent of the total electricity consumed on the Farm, and enable it to claim 100 percent green energy use.  Moreover, the power produced by this solar array is expected to reduce Lundberg’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 16,500 tons over 25 years, a sum equal to not driving about 41 million miles or planting 185 acres of trees. 

Almost immediately, the company saw a positive return on its investment. As Lundberg explains, “As soon as the warehouse was finished, we started moving in product that we had been storing in rented facilities.  We are already seeing a return in the savings from not storing product outside.”

The longer term looks even more promising. Lundberg expects that the solar panel project will pay for itself in about eight years by allowing the company to avoid paying to power its new warehouse and other facilities. Plus, Lundberg notes, “In the 12 years that follow, we will be generating and using energy for free.”

ASB’s path to improved energy efficiency is decidedly different. Over the course of its 30-year history, the company had a number of facilities, all of which were rented. As a result, ASB’s ability to make substantial changes to the physical space was limited. That changed in 2007, when the worker-owned cooperative made the decision to purchase a 70,000-square-foot building in South Petaluma, CA.

Almost immediately, planning began to make the space the company’s own. As Girkout notes, “We were finally in a position to take complete control of our space, and we wanted to take full advantage of the opportunities for improvement that that control afforded us.”

Although a number of changes were discussed, plans for updates to the building’s roof were among the most dramatic. In a unanimous vote, ASB’s 120 employees expressed their support for the installation of 1,700 solar panels on the new building’s roof.

Approximately one year later, ASB’s plans have been realized: the $1.8 million project had been completed, and 1.5 acres of solar panels now line the bakery’s roof. “It’s a beautiful system,” says Girkout. “We’ve set up tools that enable us to monitor the amount of energy that is being generated on any given day, so we can clearly see the benefit of our investment.”

Thanks to clever programming, it’s not just those inside ASB who can see this benefit. The data are also available on ASB’s website, allowing anyone who is interested to see how much energy the solar panels have produced on a given day, the day before, and over the lifetime of the system. At the same time, the website enables visitors to see what the energy produced using solar power is equivalent to in non-scientific terms.  They can see, for example, how many houses could be powered using the electricity generated by ASB’s solar panels.  Additionally, the website allows visitors to track the amount of sulphur dioxide that has been kept out of the environment as the result of ASB’s reliance on solar power.

As in Lundberg’s case, the results speak for themselves. As of March 4, ASB’s solar panels had generated 66,411 kWh of electricity and enabled the company to run 40 percent of its baking operation using solar power.

“The return on investment thus far has been remarkable,” Girkout observes, noting that ASB has been able to cut down its energy costs and channel these savings back to the cooperative. “Our hope,” he adds, “is that we’ll continue to see these benefits for many years to come.”