By Bob Uphues
ComEd's on again-off again power infrastructure in Riverside has been a headache for homeowners and businesses alike in recent years, and despite efforts by the electricity provider to shore up the local system, at least one business is looking for other ways to keep the lights on when the power goes out unexpectedly.
Sometime this spring, Riverside Foods, 48 E. Burlington St., will launch a project to install a 28-kilowatt solar panel array on the east half of its roof, which will harness enough energy to provide about 10 percent of the power the grocery store needs to operate on a daily basis, plus enough battery storage to help it get through a power outage lasting more than a day.
"This started some years ago with a desire to be more sustainable in our energy use," said Riverside Foods co-owner Peter Boutsikakis. "We've also had a rough experience with [ComEd's power] infrastructure, and we wondered what we could do beyond [natural] gas-powered generators."
Perhaps the last straw was a power outage following a powerful derecho storm that blew through the area in August 2020. The store was without power for more than a day, forcing the store to rent a refrigerated trailer to preserve perishable food. It wasn't the store's first experience with such an outage.
"In 2020, we had several outages of varying degrees," said Boutsikakis. "Most were for a couple of hours, but the one in [August] was more than a day long and we lost product and business. It was a tremendous amount of labor involved to recoup."
So, Riverside Foods turned to Project Green Environmental Solutions, a Forest Park-based company that provides businesses with everything from energy assessments to contracting services to improve energy efficiency.
The company also has expertise in securing grants for sustainable energy projects through ComEd's small business energy efficiency program. Project Green previously worked with Riverside Foods about a decade ago to upgrade all of its lighting using ComEd's grant program.
Initially, said Boutsikakis, the latest conversation with Project Green started with questions related to retrofitting older coolers instead of simply replacing them. That discussion led to something more ambitious, solar power.
Boutsikakis did not reveal how much the store is investing in the solar panel, but he said the decision makes made financial sense. Panels will have a useful life of 20 to 25 years and the savings on energy costs will return that investment, he said, within 10 years.
The business can also benefit from federal and state tax incentives for implementing solar energy in addition to ComEd's incentives.
The solar array will be located atop the east half of the roof, which is supported by metal trusses instead of the wood that supports the older west half. Boutsikakis is particularly happy that the solar panels will be mounted on skids and not affixed to the roof structure itself, allowing the panels to be moved around in order to allow any future maintenance to be done on the roof.
Tom Odena, who owns his own company, Hummingbird Electric, but also serves as supervising electrician for Project Green, said the Riverside Foods project will integrate the solar system with a natural-gas generator that will not only augment the solar system's power supply during outages but will also be able to recharge the battery so the business can endure through lengthy power outages in the future.
This will be the first commercial solar array installed in Riverside and Odena said he hopes it spurs other small and mid-sized businesses to seek sustainable energy solutions. What may help the most is an innovative financing option called "pace financing," in which businesses partner with a municipality or county to issue a bond that is paid off over a period of years through a line item on the business' property tax bill.
"There's been a lot of interest, but the problem is once they hear how much capital is involved up front, they're not so interested anymore," Odena said. "This kind of financing makes sense for small and medium-sized businesses."