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Jan Lee headshot

Solar Power Finds a New Home at General Mills' Plant in Spain

Words by Jan Lee

Solar panels are a familiar sight in Spain. The Iberian Peninsula’s hot sunny weather has been great for the country’s reputation as a year-round travel destination, but it’s also helped Spain establish a respectable footing in the solar power market.

Locations like Sevilla, in southern Spain, which captured the media’s attention in 2008 with the construction of what was, at the time, the world’s largest concentrated solar tower put Spain on the renewable energy map. Photovoltaic installations however, with their sprawling farms of thousands of solar panels, continue to face a fundamental challenge: finding enough horizontal space that won’t displace the area’s agricultural and urban needs.

Nowhere has this need been more obvious than in northern Spain’s renewable energy capital, the Chartered Community of Navarra, where more than 60 percent of its annual electricity needs are met with renewable energy (81 percent in 2011, per Navarra’s president, Miguel Sanz). Here, space is at a premium, and companies with large, flat rooftops are often viewed with envy.

“It is not very sustainable to install your solar panels (on agricultural land),” explains John Roszbach, who serves as the plant manager for the General Mills plant in San Adrian, Navarra, Spain.

Roszbach, who recently helped General Mills complete an agreement for the lease of approximately 250,000 square feet of its rooftop to MB Solar calls renting out the plant’s rooftop a “win-win" situation. “They can install their solar panels and generate green electricity, and they are not occupying land that we could use for other sustainable uses."

Green energy is not only a booming business in this semi-rural community, it’s a point of pride for its residents. It creates jobs and is viewed as a viable part of the local economy.

So when MB Solar received word that the plant would be able to lease its rooftop, the company fanned out through the community looking for investors. Installing enough panels to make the project profitable would take about $3 million, says Roszbach – more than a small, local company would normally have on hand.

The result was a multi-level partnership between General Mills, MB Solar, 16 other local businesses and private citizens, and the local power company.

“(They are) all local investors and what I know is they are very proud to own a part of the roof."

Investors range from semi-large companies to “a person who owns 10 or 20 of these solar panels." So the investment, says Roszbach, “is open to everybody. For them it’s also a nice way of investing their money, showing that they have a green heart and a green mind. And that’s not a joke. It’s really how (the community) feels about it. So it’s for the local people.”

The rooftop is leased to MB Solar for 25 years, which oversees the solar installation. The panels are owned by the investors, and the electricity that is generated is picked up by the Spanish power company Iberdrola. The arrangement creates jobs for residents, investment potential for local businesses and provides a suitable location for energy production that doesn’t interfere with other local industries.

In return for the lease of its rooftop, the plant receives 7 percent of the annual value of the electricity that is harvested for the next 25 years. It’s a win-win arrangement for the plant as well, says Roszbach.

“(Our plan is to) reinvest this money every year in green projects that we have inside the plant,” which he says complements General Mills’ own sustainability goals. “So there will be a loop of green money flowing into the system, which I really like.”

Plus, says Roszbach, it allows them to meet the company’s goals for “continuous improvement” by establishing sustainability targets that are then paid for by the lease of their rooftop.

The arrangement, however, was not a short process. The Minneapolis office first had to approve the proposal and the roof had to be tested for durability for 4,500 solar panels. Finally, the investors had to be notified. In all, it took almost three years for the solar project to be launched. But Roszbach feels the project was worth it. Not only does it “give back to the community” but it has piqued interest from other plants, as well as by other companies around the world that wanted to know how to pursue similar arrangements.

“We are now beginning to share our knowledge … with other facilities all over the globe, says Roszbach, who expressed a hope that General Mills’ San Adrian project may help encourage more sustainable use of space for solar power production.

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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