A Q&A with UPS Director of Facilities Procurement Bill Moir.
UPS recently announced plans to invest $18 million in solar power for eight facilities across the United States, part of the company’s long-standing commitment to sustainability and alternative energy sources.
The Longitudes team sat down with UPS solar expert Bill Moir to discuss the investment and solar power’s potential for the future:
First off, what is solar power? How is it made and stored?
Solar power is taking the energy that’s provided by the sun and converting it into a useful form, either by using the available heat or by converting the sunlight to electricity through a photovoltaic array. UPS’s use is generating electricity through PV arrays.
“UPS is committed to investing in solar energy because the technology works.”
Much of UPS’s use of electricity is during nighttime hours. So the application of “net metering,” where we send excess electricity to the grid during the daytime and then draw from the grid at night, works as a sort of “virtual” storage.
But we recognize the growing opportunities and role that storage with solar can offer and will continue to explore that technology as it matures.
How is UPS planning to use solar energy?
UPS is committed to investing in solar energy because the technology works and has a 30-year horizon. We use a lot of research to understand the long-term benefits of the technologies and innovations in which we invest. We tend to be in our facilities for a very long time so long-term solutions in alternative energy are an attractive option.
Do you think vehicles could be powered by solar energy one day?
There is an intermittency with solar that will limit its direct vehicle use, but battery-powered vehicles are a reality today. Solar-driven storage, which then gets transferred into an electric vehicle, is a solution that can be viable.
What are the benefits of using solar power versus something more conventional like diesel?
From an application-engineering perspective, solar is pretty simple. There’s more complexity to diesel – or any fuel that requires an engine with a lot of parts that you have to maintain. You also have the ongoing uncertainty of your fuel cost.
Solar is pretty passive stuff. Once it’s installed, maintenance is a bit like what it takes to wash windows. Your return on solar can be within five or six years, yet it will produce electricity for 30 years without any additional fuel costs.
Will solar power become a scalable energy solution for businesses in the future? Do you think it will be mainstream?
“Solar power is already a scalable energy solution for businesses in many locations.”
It’s an energy source that peaks when the sun is at its highest, and the grid is working hard to meet air conditioning loads. Efforts to continue to drive down the installed cost will only improve its viability as a mainstream solution.
What role do you believe businesses play in the sustainability space?
UPS views environmental, social and economic responsibility as important to a balanced, sustainable focus.
Being environmentally sustainable at the expense of economic viability would limit a company’s ability to support its social commitments. Being sustainable as a company is about striking a reasoned balance.
What other alternative energies look promising? How is UPS using these solutions?
For commercial application onsite, solar is the most viable today. We have looked at wind, but our proximity to urban areas makes that challenging. We have also evaluated various landfill gas opportunities and fuel cells.
Are there are any other trends or innovations worth watching?
The solar industry has done well in engineering solutions and driving down the cost of solar installations. It will be interesting to see how much cost can come down.
There has also been a lot of effort in the area of integrated solar – traditional building materials that generate electricity in the presence of sunlight. But the performance and cost have kept these solutions outside of the mainstream to date.
I think the innovations made around batteries and storage will prove the most impactful. The automotive space is driving a lot of advances in lower-cost, higher-performance batteries, which will ultimately offer benefits to the solar industry.
For a typical UPS facility, 40 percent of our monthly utility invoice might come from 15 minutes of peak energy use at night. If we can capture the energy from the sun at 3 p.m., store it and shift its use to 8 p.m. to offset our peak, it will offer another way to reduce facility costs.
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