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January 31,2018 - Green business good for environment, bottom line
Florida Weekly

| January 24, 2018

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON
Florida Weekly Correspondent

Prior to 2008, Richard Johnson, co-owner of Bailey’s General Store on Sanibel Island, was paying $22,000 a month on electricity for the store. “My bill for (December) was only $8,200,” he said. What happened in the ensuing 10 years, to bring about such an extreme shrink in costs? In 2008, Mr. Johnson began what he likes to call “our kilowatt diet.” It started with adding doors to his beer and dairy refrigerators and will continue in 2018 with phase two of the store’s conversion to solar power.

With the attention the new community of Babcock Ranch, which is in Lee and Charlotte counties, has been making with its solar and other green initiatives, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties have been seeing a growing green trend in commercial buildings. It began with the Florida Green Lodging movement more than a decade ago, and has spread to grocery stores, storage businesses, banks, grocery stores, nonprofit organizations and other housing developments. Lower solar equipment costs and tax incentives have fueled the trend.

In South Fort Myers, the Mirada development by Lennar Homes boasts the first community in Southwest Florida where every home comes with solar panels.

“Babcock only benefits FPL and the community marketing, not the homeowner,” said Dominick Zito, sales manager of the Florida West Coast division of project installer Urban Solar. “The residents at Babcock are still charged full retail or higher for their power … to pay for all FPL’s solar fields. The green advantage is directly to homeowners when they have individual systems on their roofs.”

Urban Solar also installed the largest private solar conversion in Collier County in 2016 at William C. Huff Companies. The firm provides climate-controlled storage “for primarily high-wealth families” who are rebuilding their homes or receiving shipment of expensive items, said owner Jim Henderson. He has been so pleased by the results of his 528 solar panels atop his 44,000-square-foot building, he has expanded his business to constructing affordable, hurricane-resistance, solar-ready homes.

“When I’m offsetting my electric bill and at same time producing a negative carbon footprint, I have an immediate return on investment,” he said. He explained that he financed his solar installation over seven years with the same monthly payments he had been making for electricity. “It’s a wash, and it’s the right thing to do for the environment.”

Once his system is paid off in 2023, his electricity basically will be free for the remaining life of his panels, which is typically 25 years. “The utility companies don’t want you to know that,” said Mr. Henderson.

Besides converting to solar power, William C. Huff Companies recycles and reuses 500,000 pounds of cardboard each year, in addition to wooden crates. Trucks in his fleet are low-emission.

Sanibel Captiva Community Bank also realizes the value in going solar since the fourth quarter of 2016, at two locations on Sanibel Island and in Fort Myers. “In 2017, we offset our carbon footprint by 59,720 pounds,” said Jonathan Ruiz, senior vice president and director of IT and facilities. “That’s equivalent to saving 696 trees.” In terms of dollars, the two bank locations realized annual savings of about 31 to 34.5 percent, he added.

The banks have replaced all fluorescent lighting with LED bulbs, installed energy-efficient air-conditioning units and are in the process of going completely paperless. The LED lighting had the added benefit of increased productivity due to less eye strain for employees.

“Solar was our biggest progress toward going green,” said Mr. Ruiz. “We care about the environment and want to support our community. It’s a win-win. The initial investment was big, but we’re seeing (improvement) over the long run. We did use SanCap Solar Connect to get hooked up, so we also saw a savings from that.”

In November 2015, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, the friends group for the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, formed SanCap Solar Connect as a way of lowering costs for the refuge’s facilities to convert to solar along with other businesses and residents on the islands. It was the first community-wide coop to form in Florida for the purpose of leveraging group buying power to bring down solar installation rates. It resulted in more than 30 conversions in about four months.

“It was deeply gratifying to see our vision realized, a vision to offer local consumers savings on solar energy conversion through collective buying,” said John McCabe, chair of the SanCap Solar Connect committee. “We congratulate Bailey’s, San Cap Bank, and other visionary partners who have already begun to see their conversions making a difference. It just goes to show what great achievements can happen when the community works together.” In August, Solar United Neighbors will begin a similar three-month program in Collier County with a focus on residential.

The refuge has already converted its maintenance building and hopes to begin work this year on its administration building and “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center. The nonprofit Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation also used the program to install solar panels at its Bailey Homestead Preserve and Native Landscapes & Garden Center.

At Bailey’s, 268 panels have already been installed, making it the largest solar installation on Sanibel. Mr. Johnson expects to add another 300 to 350. As part of the store’s green makeover, he has transitioned to sustainable product in his seafood market. He removed six water heaters and is using excess hot water from his refrigeration system in his kitchens instead. He is finding ways to reduce packaging and has begun purchasing paper straws rather than plastic ones. He, too, has gone the LED lighting route.

“I have replaced zero lightbulbs in two years,” Mr. Johnson said. He admitted that he was paying more to responsibly dispose of the old fluorescent tubes than he was paying to buy them because of the mercury. He believes most green measures result in bottom-line savings as a bonus.

“We live in an environment here that is sensitive and somewhat fragile,” said Mr. Johnson. “If we don’t take good care of our environment, it’s going to be our undoing.” ¦