Something New Is Brewing at Starbucks: A North Carolina Solar Farm

Every Friday, members of Starbucks Treasury and Facilities teams at Seattle-based Starbucks set aside time to watch video footage taken by a drone flying over a 260-acre construction site on what was formerly a brownfield in Robeson County, North Carolina. They are monitoring the progress of NC-47, a sprawling solar farm that Starbucks says it has invested in as part of “a new phase in the company’s commitment to renewable energy.”

“When the camera pans out, you get a sense of the scale,” comments Patrick Leonard, who sources renewable energy for Starbucks stores in the United States and Canada. “It’s a big deal.”

NC-47 will be fully operational by mid-May, the company reported on its blog – its 149,000 solar panels delivering the clean energy equivalent to the electricity powering 600 Starbucks stores in North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Starbucks has invested in renewable energy since 2005, steadily increasing its investments in Renewable Energy Certificates to achieve a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the electricity powering global company-operated stores from renewable sources. Starbucks hit that target in 2015 and was the number one purchaser of renewable electricity in its sector on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership Retail Top 30 in 2016.

But now, the North Carolina facility represents the company’s move away from energy-offset purchases only, in favor of direct engagement with the energy industry.

“The corporate sector is driving the conversation at the moment, which is a very interesting dynamic,” said Leonard. “We’re happy to partner with utilities to do this but we now also have options to engage with projects directly. For a company like Starbucks and some of the tech companies that use a lot of energy, to be able to source their needs in a positive way is a win-win. It’s also a way we can demonstrate our values.

“The investment in North Carolina has been a pilot for us. We have to test and learn. Then the goal is to take what we’ve learned and do more.”

Sam Kimmins, head of RE100, a global campaign of leading businesses committed to 100 percent renewable energy that Starbucks joined in 2015, praised the company and others like it for “rewriting the rulebook for energy purchasing.”

Elsewhere, in its native Washington State, Starbucks is expanding its renewable efforts with wind power through a long-term contract with the local utility Puget Sound Energy. PSE’s Green Direct effort, an industry-leading renewable energy program for King County’s largest electric customers, will directly provide energy to power 116 Starbucks stores and the company’s roasting facility in Kent, Washington. Recently approved by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, Green Direct will ultimately produce enough energy to power nearly 30,000 homes.

“Green Direct is a way Starbucks can select what type of energy we buy, rather than that being predetermined by the utility, so we can put the money we spend on electricity into renewable energy projects,” said Leonard.

Daniel Schwartz, director of the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute, said a commitment to renewable energy by major companies like Starbucks will ultimately impact the cost of clean electricity across the board.

“Everyone responsible for building a clean energy system – from the people that permit the project to the engineers and construction labor that builds it – learn from each project, so the more renewable energy generation facilities that get built in the United States, the cheaper they get for everyone else to buy and use,” said Schwartz. “Starbucks’ commitment to being on the cutting edge of clean-energy-direct purchasing is lowering the cost for every subsequent clean-energy project.”


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