Scaling Solar Nationwide

Ikea shares lessons learned from 39 diverse installations

Sustainability is a cornerstone of home furnishings retailer Ikea, its brand and its business plan, reflecting the company’s Swedish heritage.

To move this value set forward, the company has identified a sustainability strategy with three focus areas: sustainability at home, energy and resource independence and bettering lives in communities. Solar energy and enhanced energy efficiency are core components of this energy independence program, functioning to reduce the company’s electricity costs and minimize its carbon footprint. With solar costs at an all-time low, installing systems atop most of the company’s U.S. locations not only reinforces the Ikea focus on sustainability, but also makes good business sense.

Ikea has the ambitious goal of powering 70% of its energy needs with renewables by 2015. In order to accomplish this, the company has allocated approximately $1.8 billion to renewable and solar investments through 2015. Already, Ikea has installed more than 160,000 panels in the United States. Electricity generated from these solar systems powers everything from electricity to elevators, restaurant refrigeration, air conditioning, lights, phones and security systems at large stores and distribution centers.

As partners for this initiative, Ikea has worked with five different solar integrators on various locations across the country, and is now well on its way to reaching a generating capacity of 38 MW of solar energy. One of the major installers partnering with Ikea, REC Solar, a nationwide commercial and residential solar installer, worked to develop 18 Ikea solar arrays in the United States — or 17.4 MW of clean solar power — across 12 states, ranging from California to Florida to Maryland and beyond.

With just these systems, Ikea will generate more than 700,000 MWh of clean electricity during the next 30 years, the equivalent of planting 2.3 million trees. Installing solar at this scale provides useful lessons learned that can be applied by other large-scale retailers looking to go solar at multiple locations.

CHALLENGES

Adapting to regional differences was a primary challenge met by REC Solar and the four other installers. Ikea solar projects range widely in size — from 500 kW to 3.4 MW — and are located in varying geographic locations with unique climatic characteristics, including snow, tropical storms and high winds.

REC Solar optimized system design for the particular climate of each region. For example, spacing between each row of solar panels was increased or decreased based upon the latitude of the site to ensure there is no shade from the panels in the row ahead of them (called inter-row shading).

In addition, spacing was increased in areas with heavy snowfall to allow for snow shoveling between rows, if needed. Systems constructed in areas close to the sea were built with additional layers of galvanization or aluminum to prevent corrosion from salty breezes. Finally, some systems' inverters were located within a building or under a shade structure to protect them from the elements and to ensure longer operational life. Many of the same situations applied to the Ikea projects led by other installers as well.

HARDWARE CONCERNS

REC Solar and the other installers also focused on addressing specific site-related hardware concerns and delivering high-quality installations, while completing projects on time and on budget. For example, REC Solar developed the SnapNRack 450 Series, a hybrid ballasted and attached racking solution, specifically to minimize the roof penetrations required by Ikea system installations.

By working with solar integrators that flexibly implemented solutions to address rooftop design concerns, Ikea has ensured that every roof penetration is sealed and in good condition today across all 39 system locations — critical for reliable system performance over time.

COSTS

Installing solar at scale has cost advantages as well. Ordering in bulk for multiple large systems can help reduce overall solar portfolio costs and increase a retailer’s return on investment. Certain fixed costs do not change from system to system, even if the size of the project varies. These costs include pre- and post-roof-inspection fees, structural engineering fees, site mobilization fees and equipment rentals.

However, with larger systems, these fees can be spread out across more watts — lowering the overall cost per watt and improving payback. Repeating business with a qualified partner can also generate savings for systems large and small. Partners are able to simply replicate their project proposals and legal contracts for work, based on successes at previous installations, which reduces the paperwork and logistics of the system development process, and in turn decreases overall system costs. As a retailer committed to offering affordable prices to its customers, Ikea has a keen focus on lean operating costs. For this reason, a large solar energy portfolio seemed like a win-win approach.

The strong Ikea commitment to building a large solar portfolio has brought great advantages to the company’s project development process and store operations. Ikea has been able to reduce costs and streamline efficiency by applying the lessons learned at one system to the next project. Choosing a strategic partner that understands first-hand a company’s specific needs has proven highly advantageous. With a diverse array of solar systems in place, Ikea looks forward to a future with clean, reliable electricity that will accelerate its business and keep operating costs low, to the benefit of many loyal home-furnishing customers.

Joe Roth is public affairs director of Ikea USA.

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