GM, Whole Foods Using ‘Solar Service System’

Really interesting NYT piece today (via Treehugger) about how several big companies, including GM, Staples and Whole Foods, are using clean power from solar arrays on their buildings… without paying for equipment or installation. All three companies, and others, have contracted with “solar service providers” to purchase electricity generated from rooftop systems, at below-market rates, that are owned by companies like Developing Energy Efficient Roof Systems (DEERS) and SunEdison. In each case, companies see a “win-win” in being able to generate and buy clean energy, as well as promoting themselves as “green,” without shelling out the bucks for the solar panels themselves:

…the same logic underpins all of the deals: The electricity users get a clean, reliable source of energy. The developers and their backers get an equally reliable return on their investment –Β— which can be as high as $6,000 per kilowatt hour of capacity — as well as the tax credits and rebates that California and other states offer for renewable energy projects.

“Β“Corporations like solar energy, but they would rather make sizable investments in their core businesses,”Β” said Craig Hanson, head of the Green Power Market Development Group, a consortium of large companies working under the auspices of the World Resources Institute to promote renewable energy. “Β“But for the financiers, it’s like buying the bond of a triple-A-rated company. It may not offer a 20 percent return, but it’Β’s a stable and secure investment.”

Writer Claudia H. Deutsch notes that there are a few drawbacks to this product service system concept: it only works in areas where there’s plenty of sunshine, it’s probably not cost-effective for industrial companies that have already negotiated below-market rates for power, and it can be risky for older buildings. There’s a risk that power rates could drop, putting those companies with fixed-rate contracts (which generally run for 10 years) in a bind. No one’s predicting electricity rates to drop, though, and the companies involved are generally very happy with the arrangement.

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