Going Solar Makes Sense–and Dollars and Cents
by Melanie Raskin
“Your success in life isn’t based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business.” These words by internationally renowned leadership development speaker Mark Sanborn perfectly sum up Black River Produce’s strategy. This North Springfield, Vermont wholesaler of fresh, organic, and specialty produce and products to stores and farmers’ markets for more than thirty years is changing. They are positioning themselves against the competition, mostly multi-national billion-dollar international food distributors, by investing in solar power. “To go head-to-head with our competitors, we need to do all we can to lower our costs,” said Black River Produce partner Mark Curran. “Energy is one of our major expenses. Reducing those costs makes us more competitive in today’s marketplace.”
Last fall, Prudent Living installed nearly fifteen hundred 240-watt solar panels to cover Black River’s 62,300 square feet of roof. The $1.3 million photovoltaic project is the largest private solar power system in Vermont and will generate enough power to save as much as 50 percent of the company’s utility bill, which averages $11,000 to $12,000 a year. It was the right benefit at the right time, said Curran. “One disadvantage of our business is that we’re energy hogs, with a need for reliable refrigeration and many diesel delivery trucks,” he explained. “Because of our big carbon footprint, we had been looking for a better way to use energy for a long time, but the payback was too slow, as much as twenty to thirty years. But, this year, with good pricing and tax credits, it was much more feasible.”
More feasible, more reliable and more impressive. The company is collecting a mega-watt of energy a day, enough to power 800 to 1000 homes. One of the other big selling points to Curran was Prudent Living’s innovative approach to ensuring that stellar collection rate: micro inverters. “They are way ahead of the curve by using micro inverters instead of chain-gang inverters,” Curran noted. “Remember the old Christmas tree lights we all used to have, when, if one light went out the whole string went out and you could never find the problem bulb? Solar is the same. In the old days of solar installation, we would have had eight inverters … and eight possible problems. Because of the micro inverter, each solar panel is independent. If something doesn’t work, it only affects that one panel; the rest are still working and producing power. This saves us money because, before, you didn’t know which panel was causing the outage. Now, it’s easier to diagnose the problem panel and, best of all, the system is never down.”
The solar project was just one of many renewable energy solutions Black River has adopted. “The cheapest watt is the watt you don’t use,” Curran pointed out. “We redid our lighting to make it more efficient. Our refrigeration system is computer-controlled. We power our fleet of trucks with vegetable oil from our restaurants converted to bio-diesel. And now, we’re investing in ourselves and our environment with solar power. Our goal is to get as much local food on the plate as possible. Over 22 percent of our sales were locally-raised products from more than 120 Vermont farms. Being socially responsible fits our philosophy. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
And, it’s good business, according to Tim Biebel, Vice-President of Prudent Living. The project was a boost to the economy – both the local one and Black River Produce’s. Prudent Living employed an additional twenty to twenty-five people for the autumn installation. And Black River Produce can look forward to saving money for decades to come. “This project brings our company mission statement to life,” Biebel stated. “We provide services, strategies, and products to promote a prudent way of life. We’re here to help you control what you can and prepare for what you can’t. It’s our job to help companies prudently manage their resources and, at the same time, become more profitable. While going solar is helpful to the planet, it’s also just plain smart business. It helps eliminate overhead: as soon as the system is paid off, it’s one less bill to pay–the company keeps more income, which improves the bottom line. It reduces reliance on expensive traditional fossil fuels. It saves money because it’s using a free source of power, the sun. It frees up cash to hire more people, to innovate systems, to develop new products, and to invest back in the company. For many companies, today’s competitive business climate is like walking around wearing a belt that’s too tight. Alternative energy solutions loosen the belt a notch, giving businesses more room to breathe, more freedom of movement, more options. Going solar is good business that starts paying off immediately: the very first utility bill proves the investment.”
It’s been said that all great change in America begins at the dinner table. That’s where most great American ideas start: from garage businesses like Apple to life-changing non-profits like Habitat for Humanity. When people sit and talk, they can resolve challenges and create solutions that can make a profound difference. That’s what prudence is all about: making a difference to people and business by making right choices and preparing for the future. And it works. Evaluation–proof–is important to Curran. “I’ll be accumulating data on our savings and preaching to everyone I meet–our vendors and customers–to go and do likewise. Despite the number of alternative energy plants going in, most people are energy-illiterate. This way of converting energy is good for business.”
“We’re excited about alternative energy solutions such as wind, solar, and geothermal for commercial enterprises because, in the long run, they save organizations a lot of money,” Biebel concluded. “This was a great project for us. We’re delighted by the environmental leadership Black River Produce is showing and proud to be a part of that good stewardship. Beyond being the largest private system in Vermont, what’s really rewarding about this project is that Black River Produce brings people high quality, delicious, garden-fresh fruits, vegetables, and specialty products. And now they’re doing it in a way that is good for the planet, with clean energy from the sun.”
Mark Curran of Black River Produce is in the foreground of our cover photo this issue. Mark is the mind behind the solar installation at the company’s headquarters in Springfield, Vermont. The project represents the largest private solar installation in the state, and it also represents a smart business investment.
“To go head-to-head with our competitors, we need to do all we can to lower our costs,” Mark says, “Energy is one of our major expenses. Reducing those costs makes us more competitive in today’s marketplace.”
In the background of the photo you can see the results of that smart business decision. Prudent Living was contracted to install 1,495 solar panels on the roof of their warehouse and garage, which will easily produce more than a megawatt a day during sunny months (enough to power 800-1,000 homes), saving the company as much as 50 percent on utility costs.
The addition of their new solar system is just one of several ways Black River Produce is committed to renewable resources. They recently redid their lighting and added computer controls to their refrigerators to be more efficient, and all of their trucks are powered by biodiesel converted from the used vegetable oil at the restaurants they deliver to.
Prudent Living is proud to work with a company so committed, not just to the use of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, but to the realization of how renewable energy can help small businesses stay in the economical game.
A writer since 1982, Chapel Hill, NC’s Melanie Raskin has had fun with everything from total communications campaigns to press releases, newsletters to videos, advertising copy to audio magazines, brochures to greeting cards. Highlights of her career include a week with the Hollywood PD on the Sunset Strip, riding with a long-distance trucker, channeling her inner chicken for a commercial radio campaign selling breakfast bagels and working with fitness guru Richard Simmons. She’s been the leader of the Triangle Writers Group since 1985 and volunteers at her church and the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Her hobbies include reading about food, shopping for local foods, cooking and eating–then talking about it afterward!