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December 22, 2009

City Market Co-op Going Solar

City Market/Onion River Co-op is going solar. The Burlington market will begin installing 154 solar panels on its rooftop beginning in January.

How much power do 154 solar panels produce?

If you're a Burlington house, they'd power you and five neighbors for a whole year. If you're City Market, they'd power 3 percent of your yearly energy needs.

That might not seem like a lot, but as the Co-op's Chris Lyon points out in this month's "Onion Skin" newsletter, "Grocery stores are full of energy gobbling refrigeration and freezers." Just think of the heat lost from the front doors sliding open and shut to the frigid air outside all day and night. That's a lot of juice.

City Market recently struck a deal with White River Junction-based groSolar to install the rooftop solar array. Once installed, the panels will generate 33,264 kWh of electricity each year — enough to satisfy roughly 3 percent of the Co-op's total yearly energy usage of 1,100,000 kWh.

By comparison, that's enough to power six Burlington homes for an entire year, assuming each home uses the average of 5,520 kWh.

This isn't just one more feather in the cap of Burlington's most eco-friendly supermarket — it's a shrewd business decision. City Market will use the panels for "net metering," which means they'll be selling power back to the grid. The Co-op will get a 13 percent return on the investment and have the whole solar installation paid back in five years, predicts marketing manager Nicole Fenton.

The panels will cost $187,912, but the Co-op will only pay a portion of that thanks to state grants and federal tax breaks for solar installations.

The Co-op secured a $53,900 grant from the Vermont Clean Energy Fund (part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as "the stimulus package"). City Market is also eligible federal tax credits worth $40,204 — bringing the co-op's total out-of-pocket cost for the panels to $93,808.

Click here to read an interview from this week's Seven Days with groSolar's cofounder and CEO, Jeff Wolfe, who was in Copenhagen last week for the U.N. Climate Change Conference.

Hmm. I guess solar panels are nice. But wouldn't it save a whole lot more energy to cover the fridges with clear plastic strips? Seems odd to me to run wide-open fridges in a heated building, presumably just because it looks a little nicer, and then to pat yourself on the back for your environmental stewardship because you've figured out how to do so with 3% less coal.

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