Big-Box Retail and Shopping Mall Solar: From the Possible to the Probable to the Inevitable

Shopping malls and similar venues present attractive, big-time opportunities as potential sites for grid-connected solar power, energy storage and intelligent, highly energy-efficient facilities management. A growing, international host of big-box retail, shopping mall owners, architects and building-integrated solar (BIPV) and energy management specialists are joining forces so as to capitalize on the benefits.

Asked about market growth and why every big-box retailer and mall rooftops and parking lots aren’t covered with solar-plus-storage and converted into distributed, grid-connected, emissions-free power plants, Drew TorbinSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, co-founder and CEO of U.S.-based Black Bear Energy had this to say: “The scale is ramping up.”

The built environment is a massive, great thing, and there is massive market potential out there. There always exists what’s possible and what’s probable before it’s inevitable. We’re seeing that. It’s a question and concern for smaller and smaller big-box retailers not to support solar now, especially when they see the scale at which some retailers are deploying solar. So it’s in the realm of possibility for them economically, and the range of states that fall into that range is growing.

Shopping Malls Solar Integrations: From Possible to Inevitable

Solar growth among big-box retailers and shopping mall owners

Black Bear Energy’s origins stretch back to Torbin and fellow Black Bear Energy co-founder, executive vice president and chief procurement officer Kim Saylor-Laster’s experiences developing their first energy-efficient buildings and facilities energy systems management work, Torbin for Prologis, and Saylors-Laster for Walmart. Attracting venture capital from a variety of professional investors, they founded Boulder, Colorado-based Black Bear Energy in 2015 and have been hard at it and growing since, Torbin said in an interview.

Black Bear provides clean energy advisory services to institutional real estate investors that own and manage commercial, industrial, residential and mixed-use real estate across the US, Torbin explained. The pioneering company has participated in solar power projects with real estate developers and owners with more than 3 billion square feet (278,709,120 square meters) of real estate assets under management solely by word of mouth.

To date, Black Bear has advised and helped clients invest in and implement distributed solar and energy efficiency projects at shopping malls, stadiums and parking lots of various kinds. “We’ve done work in just about every different type of commercial real estate asset and environment,” Torbin told Solar Magazine.

Aerial View of Big-Box Retailer Rooftop with Solar Potential

A typical retail or commercial project’s systems configuration typically centers on solar power generation at this point, Torbin explained. “Solar PV plus storage is limited; the economics are viable in only a handful of markets today,” he said.

The growth of community solar projects in a growing number of U.S. states where shares of solar power and resulting savings produced by solar power generators are distributed across a group of subscribers is boosting investment and deployments by big-box and smaller retailers, however, Torbin highlighted.

“Some of these centers can host solar on rooftops and start community solar, as well as wind, power plants up with the most efficient site use. The community reaps the benefits of low-cost, renewable energy,” Torbin said.

Typically, the retailers act solely as the site host; they don't consume any of the solar power the generators produce, he added. “Most of them are renting their roofs and parking lots by making them available to a third-party developer who runs the community solar systems and sells power to subscribers. It’s a great type of a project to set up,” he added, singling out a Massachusetts program that encourages project development.

Economic, social and environmental returns

At the bottom line, straightforward economics is fueling big-box retailers’ investments in and deployment of solar power, as are growing efforts to meet public attitudes, values and increasingly government regulations, regarding buildings, businesses and environmental responsibility, according to Gregory WetstoneSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, president and CEO of ACORE, the American Council on Renewable Energy.

“Major retailers are increasingly investing in solar power because it makes sense both economically and environmentally. The price to install solar has fallen precipitously over the last decade, making it the most affordable electricity option in many scenarios. Furthermore, there are tremendous business advantages from having customers understand that you walk the walk. American shoppers are more cognizant than ever of their carbon footprint, and retailers are recognizing that to sustain their customer base, they need to prove that investments in their products and at their stores are helping the environment, not hurting it,” Wetstone told Solar Magazine.

Wetstone said growing use of solar energy fits right in with the much broader, rising trend of corporate environmental and social governance (ESG) and ethical investment, as well as social responsibility and sustainability.

With steady growth topping US$1 trillion annually, sustainable investing has quickly become one of the biggest finance trends in America.

—Wetstone highlighted.

“Today, it represents approximately one out of every four dollars in total U.S. assets under management. We recently released a white paper examining ESG investing in the U.S. and how it can be improved to better reflect renewable energy use and investment. I believe ESG investing is a critical avenue for continued growth for our sector, but improvements to the scoring methodologies will be essential for that growth to be realized,” Wetstone said in an interview.

Solar on every shopping mall in America?

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

“I’d love to see solar on the roof of every shopping mall in America, but it can’t stop there. From shopping malls to office buildings to single-family and multi-family homes, if we’re going to have any chance at mitigating the harmful impacts of climate change, we’re going to need to see a significant acceleration in the deployment of renewable energy and enabling grid technologies,” Wetstone concluded. Redesigning and rebuilding the antiquated U.S. power grid so that it’s flexible, efficient and built to meet 21st century needs and allows us to make use of advanced technologies to efficiently distribute and store electricity is the most immediate challenge when it comes to making the transition to zero-carbon electricity generation, according to Wetstone.

“Energy storage is a great place to start,” he highlighted. “Today’s storage technology could save ratepayers money and reduce pollution by replacing dirty and expensive fossil fuel ‘peaking’ power plants in every region of the country, but financing its deployment remains a challenge. This is why we’re championing enactment of an expanded investment tax credit for energy storage in this Congress, one that supports storage anywhere it is deployed on the grid,” Wetstone said.

For its part, Black Bear Energy is expanding, having carried out projects in a total of 18 states across the U.S. so far this year. The company expects to do business in seven more in 2020. “We’re working with a lot of retail property owners, some very large,” Torbin said. “They like these projects because of the economics, because of the positive environmental impact they have and because they want to be a best-in-class market leader,” according to Torbin.

Forecasting: “Solarification” of Shopping Malls in America?

“Part of our growth now represents 55 clients, up from about 40 or so, but also more markets where solar works economically,” Torbin said. “We’re right at that inflection point where what’s probable becomes inevitable. That’s a major achievement.”

“Simply the scale of what is currently going on [is significant]—a 1-megawatt project used to be press release worthy. The target at the top currently is something like 160 MW I think. The growth rate is undeniable and more and more markets are opening up. How quickly is the market going to grow? Well, solar-ready homes, buildings and facilities are becoming mandatory in some places,” Torbin pointed out. That includes California, where solar energy systems will be mandatory in new residential buildings come January 2020 and commercial buildings in 2030. comment↓


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