The evidence is clear. The Solar Energy Industries Association last month issued its fifth annual report tracking business use. Total adoption, the report says, has risen from 300MW in 2012 top more than 1GW this year. The report, which covers the biggest retail players, says that Target, which an installed base of 147.5MW, has unseated Walmart (145MW), as the largest user of solar. Walmart had worn the crown for the past four years. Rounding off the list of top finishers are Prologis (108MW), Apple (94MW) and Costco (51 MW), Kohl’s (50MW), Macy’s (39MW), General Growth Properties (30MW) and Hartz Mountain and Bed, Bath and Beyond (both at 23MW).
Solar power of course is a very potent tool, and the aggressive uptake by big businesses is a good thing. It has a big challenge, however: Solar is inconsistent. When it rains, the energy does not pour. Nor does it flow at night. Of course, solar increasingly is being paired with storage, which could alleviate that challenge.
But there are other ways to push renewable energy and decentralized energy, and IKEA is going down that road as well. The company is deploying fuel cells, which avoid the inconsistency challenge altogether. It announced this week that it has installed biogas-power fuel cell systems from Bloom Energy at its stores in Costa Mesa and Covina, CA. Plans also were announced for fuel cell installations at outlets in East Palo Alto, which is in the San Francisco area, San Diego and in New Haven, CT. The fuel cells, the company says, will supplement solar arrays on each of the stores.
Thus, those stores have both constant and variable sources of renewable, non-grid and decentralized energy. IKEA spokesperson Joe Roth, in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today, said that the fuel cells have the potential to cut costs by 20 percent to 40 percent when they are fully up and running.
The corporation, which has 42 locations in the United States (with a Memphis store set to open next month) and 390 worldwide, seems to be transitioning the fuel cell initiative from pilots to an accepted technology approach. “I guess you could say it’s a gradual rollout on a case-by-case basis,” Roth wrote. “We are continuing to evaluate the potential for opportunities at other locations. However, we have only determined prospective projects feasible for a limited number of stores.”
In other words, the company has high hopes for the combination of solar power and fuel cells. How solar and fuel cells will work together is a key question. “The fuel cell systems essentially serve as supplemental onsite power generation at the IKEA stores where we have installed them” Roth wrote. “The goal is to generate additional renewable energy that augments what already is being generated by solar PV arrays atop the stores.”
It is unclear how, or if, the technologies will interact. Will the technology work in isolation, with both generally work toward the goal of energy efficiency and use of renewable energy in discreet silos? Will they actually be linked to form sophisticated microgrids? Will they remain separate but be jointly monitored?
It seems possible that joint platforms in which the solar arrays and fuel cells work closely together could provide advantages. These all are highly technical issues, so it may not be possible. However, having two approaches working at the same facility independent of each other doesn’t seem to be inefficient. Bloom Energy declined to comment for this blog.