Stewart’s Shops: Never Too Old to Learn

Stewart’s Shops is a 70-year-old convenience store chain that has grown to 337 locations. Headquartered in Saratoga Springs, NY, the stores – most of sell gas as well as food – serve upstate New York and southern Vermont. The business, which is one-third employee and two-thirds family owned, has incorporated solar energy into the mix during the past few years.

The first step was the installation of a system at the company’s manufacturing plant in Saratoga, N.Y., about four years ago. The company saw that the project made sense. “When we were approached with the rooftop project, we realized both the financial and environmental value,” wrote spokesperson Maria D’Amelia, in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today.

EnterSolar engineered and installed the system. Managing Director Peyton Boswell told Energy Manager Today that the roof-mounted system uses about 2,500 solar modules to produce 600 KW of electricity. This is about 15 percent of the plant’s needs. “It was particularly effective as our plant’s peak demand is when solar output is at its greatest. [That resolves] power distribution problems of the grid,” Amelia wrote.

The next step was taken late last year. The company worked with EnterSolar to build a ground-based solar farm on a 15-acre parcel in Halfmoon, N.Y. The solar farm, which is a much bigger endeavor than the Saratoga project, was completed in July. The goal, according to EnterSolar, is to offset as much as 75 percent of the power used by 17 of the chain’s shops. The solar farm consists of 5,700 solar panels and 53 invertors. It produces 1.8 MW and 2.4 million kWh of electricity.

The project was supported by The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) NY-Sun net metering program. The benefits are obvious: Implementing solar on individual stores is cumbersome and wouldn’t generate as much electricity because some of the locales don’t lend themselves to solar deployments. “[T]he use of an alternative site made sense, versus the constraints we face on-site at a small size shop,” D’Amelia wrote. “We had the right location and the right number of shops that could benefit from solar production.”

Boswell said that utilities usually are not amenable to solar programs. In this case, however, NYSEG didn’t mind. There has been an increase in demand in the Halfmoon area, he said. The additive solar capacity has enabled the utility to avoid building more capacity. “NYSEG was happy to have [the solar farm] come to Halfmoon,” Boswell said.

Solar is in the process of moving from the periphery to the center of both residential and commercial energy portfolios. In some cases, however, the stumbling block isn’t fears about system reliability or the consistency of sunlight at one spot or another. It is the difficulties of funding. “One of the things commercial solar sector struggles with is access to scalable financing,” said Open Energy Founder and CEO Graham Smith, which worked with EnterSolar on the financing.

The Halfmoon phase of the project was financed via a $1.6 million loan by Open Energy to an affiliate of EnterSolar. The project afforded Stewart’s financial incentives and a path toward fulfillment of a corporate renewable energy mandate – all without any investment, spending on operations or maintenance or leasing or buying land.

Solar offers dependable energy. The growing ability to store this energy – though not a part of the Stewart’s project now, since the company is using all the electricity that is generated – bodes well for its future. The key to D’Amelia is to call in folks who know energy, sunlight and financing. This allows them to stick to their core business of keeping customers and their cars full of food and gas, respectively. “It goes so far beyond having panels installed,” she wrote. “You really need to partner with someone who knows the ins and outs from a technology, regulatory, and incentive standpoint.”

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