Milk, Bread and a Microgrid: What Savvy Whole Foods Has Figured Out Now

Sept. 11, 2014
Whole Foods is again redefining the idea of the grocery store. Outfitted with a microgrid, its Brooklyn store serves as a community haven during a prolonged power outage.The store becomes a place to not only buy food, but also charge cell phones and simply make much-needed human connection.

Credit: See *

Whole Foods Market has earned its stripes as a trend spotter.  When the grocery store began its national expansion 30 years ago, skeptics doubted that enough consumers would pay a premium for organic food to make the supermarket chain a success.

With $13 billion in annual sales last year, and now 388 stores, the food retailer has clearly proved the skeptics wrong. Its expansion continues with plans to reach the 500-store mark in three years and later 1,200.

Whole Foods’ success, in part, stems from its ability to break the grocery store stereotype and serve shoppers in non-traditional ways. For example, Whole Foods tries to transform shopping from a chore to a pleasant experience. And the company aligns itself with the higher purpose goals of its customers – supporting local farmers, community gardens and certain charitable causes.

Now Whole Foods is again redefining the idea of the grocery store, giving it a new mission as a community haven during a prolonged power outage. The store becomes a place to not only buy food but also charge cell phones and simply make much-needed human connection when a catastrophe like SuperStorm Sandy upends lives.

To that end, Whole Foods last year installed a flagship microgrid with solar, wind, and combined heat and power at its new store in Brooklyn, New York. If everything else in the neighborhood goes dark, the Brooklyn store will stay alight and open.

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The microgrid makes the store into a “gathering place where people can come and get shelter and food,” said J’aime Mitchell, a green emissions specialist and energy coordinator at Whole Foods. Power flows to keep refrigeration working, coffee warm, and cell phones charged so that people can let faraway family and friends know that they are okay.

To be fair, Whole Foods is not alone in seeing  grocery stores as a good candidates for microgrids.  As cities and states make plans to develop community microgrids, they increasingly designate the grocery store as a ‘critical facility’ that needs reliable power, alongside hospitals, police stations and emergency shelters.

But Whole Foods pursued the idea early, before the prolonged power outages of Superstorm Sandy that set off the current wave of microgrid development in the United States. In fact, the Brooklyn store was being built when the notorious superstorm hit in October 2012. Whole Foods was already thinking microgrid because of severe storms experienced in the Northeast a year earlier.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” said Tristam Coffin, green emissions specialist and energy coordinator at Whole Foods.

Should – or some would argue when – the next big storm wallops the power system in the Northeast, the microgrid can island from the main grid and generate about 400 kW independently.

Part of a larger store sustainability plan that includes a rooftop greenhouse, the microgrid has both grid-connected and distributed generation. Some of its elements are:

  • A 157-kW combined heat and power plant
  • 250 kW natural gas back-up generator
  • A 324-kW photovoltaic canopy array that covers about 75 percent of the parking lot. It shades cars and also acts as a rain catcher.
  • 17, 1.5 kW distributed wind turbines that charge a battery pack
  • 2, 4-kW grid-tied wind turbines
  • Electric vehicle charging stations, powered off the grid via solar and wind turbines
  • LED parking lot lights also powered by wind and solar

The new store also incorporated various energy efficiency and sustainability elements, such as lighting controls, daylight harvesting, and demand-control ventilation. The New York State Energy Research & Development Authority contributed $720,389 for planning and implementation of the project. EME Group and SunEdison were among the contractors that worked on the project.

NYSERDA expects the project to achieve payback in 6.3 years, with annual energy cost savings of $369,317 from annual electricity savings totaling 2,513,868 kWh and a peak demand savings of 324.3 kW. The store cannot net meter because of complications related to the local utility’s rules. It does retain solar renewable energy credits created by the project.

The microgrid serves as a good way to educate consumers about energy. They can “see, feel, touch, smell” the system, see how it
interacts with the store’s rooftop greenhouse, and come to “see why Whole Foods as a grocery story is interested in renewable energy, water conservation, and things like that – because it affects the food system which in turn affects all of us in a lot of different ways,” Mitchell said.

The team that worked on the Brooklyn store sees it as an experimental prototype. They hope that utilities and government agencies will partner with Whole Foods on similar projects, and provide financial support that recognizes the community service a grocery store microgrid provides in a crisis.

To that end, they are pushing for financial assistance – incentives, partnerships with utilities or government agencies – that recognize grocery store microgrids as community havens during an outage.

“We think in terms of community relief, food and water, we would be the perfect end user to have onsite generation,” said Kathy Loftus, Whole Foods’ global leader of sustainable engineering and energy management.

What Whole Foods is describing isn’t an emergency shelter, but a new kind of crisis facility , one that helps restore all-important connectedness – the contemporary Internet/cell phone type, as well as the old-fashioned social kind.

*Credit for all photos with this article: Christina Nuzzo/Whole Foods Market.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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