Learning from JBT Corporation’s Journey to Solar Power

By Jason Dingle, Corporate Director Environmental Health, Safety, and Security, JBT Corporation on Dec 17, 2015

A number of years ago, JBT Corporation – a Better Plants partner – began looking into the potential of replacing a large percentage of its Madera, California facility’s electrical power usage with a photovoltaic (PV) solar panel system. The food processing machinery and airport equipment-company shelved the project because the return on investment was low and the project would not have paid for itself until twelve to sixteen years, even after a 30% federal tax credit. However, in early 2014 the company began evaluating solar systems again as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility projects.

JBT looked at getting the services of a solar system consultant to help find a potential vendor and to learn more about solar, but cost concerns led them to do the research internally. Once the company identified acceptable vendors to quote systems, they used the quoting process to have vendors educate them on system requirements, technical details, and selection. They also relied on the electrical engineering department at their Madera site, and although they were not solar engineers, they were very helpful at various stages in the selection and installation process.

The company narrowed the vendor quotation list to four system suppliers and proceeded through in-person meetings with each supplier to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and to get a personal feel for each of the people they would be working with directly through an eight to ten month construction project. JBT selected Conergy Projects as their vendor of choice based on their technical knowledge, world wide experience, local management, cost, and most importantly, their people. In hindsight, JBT made a good decision since the project came in on schedule and at cost.

During the planning and installation phases, a variety of issues arose that had to be worked through with the city and state building and construction departments. JBT had to obtain variances from the city planning commission and work with different government departments that did not talk to each other even though they were 20 feet apart. Nevertheless, the company came away with several lessons when pursuing solar power installation:

  1. Give more upfront thought and time to non-solar items, like excavation, grading, and landscaping.
  2. Do more upfront with government departments involved in the process.
  3. Be prepared to manage potential conflicts with your local utility, which may have a different perspective on your use of solar power
  4. Understand that you will have to be more involved than you would think with the variety of sub-contractors your primary contractor uses during construction.

Six years elapsed between first look and full installation of the solar panel system. In the end, JBT replaced over 40% of its electrical usage cost with solar and completed a $1.45 million project with a discounted payback of 4.2 years in five months and within projected cost. 70% of the cost reduction was in panel costs coming down, while the balance was in technical development in other equipment that lowered their cost as well.