Despite their role in promoting sustainable development in the built environment, microgrids have traditionally been powered by fossil fuels — primarily natural gas. However, improved microgrid technology, along with a steady trend in cost reductions, are inspiring an increased adaptation of renewable energy sources for microgrids.
Today’s microgrids incorporate a more diverse assortment of largely clean and renewable energy, often combining a mix-and-match of rooftop solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells and biomass-power heat with storage to provide maximum uptime for mission critical operations, according to a 2021 report by Guidehouse Insights.
The report suggests microgrids powered by renewable energy will increase to 32.8 gigawatts in installed capacity by 2030, creating nearly 500,000 jobs over the next decade, $72 billion in gross domestic product growth and $146 billion in business sales. One major factor in this projected growth: more cost-efficient energy storage — such as battery cells for solar arrays.
One company acting on this potential is Bimbo Bakeries USA, a subsidiary of Mexico-based Grupo Bimbo that produces baked goods brands including Sara Lee and Entenmann’s. The company, headquartered in Horsham, Pennsylvania, has contracted with GreenStruxure to design and construct solar-powered microgrids at six California bakeries in Montebello, Placentia, Oxnard, San Luis Obispo, South San Francisco and Sacramento.
The microgrids represent one of the most recent examples of the overall commitment to sustainability of Bimbo Bakeries and its parent company, according to Chris Wolfe, senior director of environmental sustainability for Bimbo Bakeries USA.
"That's your classical ‘product, people and planet.’ The focus area on the planet side, which is where I'm at, we call ‘baked for nature.’ We have very aggressive targets for net-zero waste, net-zero carbon and regenerative agriculture, which is a whole different conversation. On net-zero carbon, the commitment from our parent company Grupo Bimbo is by 2030, we're going to cut emissions by 50 percent," Wolfe said.
GreenStruxure, established in 2020 as a joint venture between Schneider Electric and Huck Capital, provides standardized, modular microgrids using an energy as a service (EaaS) model, and will own and operate the microgrids. The Bimbo Bakeries microgrids will incorporate storage capacity, which will be engaged during peak demand periods to avoid peak usage charges. Stored energy from the microgrids will also provide backup during the increasingly common rolling brownouts and blackouts in drought-stricken California. In addition, the microgrids will feature a modular design that will enhance resiliency and future-proof the design, by allowing for expansion of power generation and storage capacity, either with a traditional natural gas generator or with additional batteries.
As an EPA Green Power Partner and a member of global renewable energy initiative RE100, Grupo Bimbo is the world’s largest commercial bakery, with operations in 33 countries. It committed to achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2025 and has already met this goal through a 2018 virtual power purchase agreement (VPPA) to receive 100 megawatts of wind energy from renewable energy company Invenergy, based in Chicago.
The California microgrids planned for Bimbo Bakeries are presently in the engineering stage. Once they are up and running, the microgrids will reduce carbon emissions at the six bakeries by about 25 percent, as well as provide a quarter of each location’s electricity needs. The original target date for going online was the end of 2022; however, due to supply chain delays, that date has been pushed back to the first or second quarter of 2023, Wolfe said.
Energy-related incentives offered by California combined with its high utility costs made the state a logical choice for these first six solar microgrids, according to Wolfe. However, the plan is to install microgrids in other states at a future date, Wolfe said.
"California has some incentives [for] companies to invest in these systems because it'll reduce the strain on the grid. From an environmental perspective, it reduces our emissions, which is a good thing. So, you factor in incentives; [and] it's aligned with our long-term vision of reducing carbon. That's why we started in California, but it is scalable beyond California. It's not going to stop in California. Now that doesn't mean that I would anticipate that we're going to have microgrids in every state, because that's just not going to happen," Wolfe said.
Bimbo Bakeries installed its first solar array five years ago in Escondido as a pilot and later ran a trial battery system in Ello, California, as a proof of concept. Both locations are still up and running. In fact, the Escondido solar array provides 33 percent of the electricity for that location. Progressing to an integrated microgrid system was a logical next step, Wolfe said.
Bimbo Bakeries has been an EPA Energy Star Partner of the Year for the past four years; 18 of its bakeries received EPA Energy Star certification in 2021, the highest number for the baking industry. However, transitioning completely away from carbon-based fuels will require additional technology advances as well as upgrading the national electrical grid, Wolfe said.
"If you were going to say, ‘Hey Chris, what's the biggest challenge that you foresee?’ That is the challenge. All of our ovens in the United States are natural gas-fired. Let's just hypothetically say the technology was there to allow us to retrofit these ovens to electric. The problem is with the current technology, you would actually increase our energy use, and knowing where electric currently is generated, it would actually increase emissions because the amount of electricity needed to convert one oven to electric would require the same amount of electricity that we typically would need for an entire bakery... The local grid isn't prepared yet for that level of electrification," Wolfe said.
In the meantime, the planned microgrids represent one of several approaches Bimbo Bakeries plans to engage in progressing toward its net-zero goals, Wolfe said.
"If we're going to get the net-zero carbon, you [have] got to look at it in several different methods. One is going to be onsite renewables, which is what the microgrid does for us. We’re going to expand in other areas as well. We have the wind farm; we will start to have a procurement strategy that includes procuring renewables. It’s just a logical fit. If you're going to move the needle on carbon, you’ve got to do so some onsite renewables," Wolfe said.