Kohl’s has long been one of the most innovative and successful department store chains in the United States. Its rapid growth is matched with the company’s increased focus on sustainability, particularly when it comes to solar power. As part of the company’s plan to ramp up investment in renewables, Kohl’s solar power portfolio now includes “solar tree” structures at one of its offices in Dallas to provide both shaded parking and electric vehicle charging.
The solar trees are a product built by Envision Solar, a San Diego-based solar design company. The first deployment occurred late last week at the company’s offices in Dallas, Texas, and Kohl’s has plans to install more at various locations across the company. I had a telephone conversation with Envision Solar’s CEO, Desmond Wheatley, to learn more about the company and how they fit in with Kohl’s clean energy strategy.
Mr. Wheatley explained that Kohl’s gravitated to the company’s solar trees for several reasons: Their single-column design involved less installation headaches than the conventional solar arrays seen in parking lots across the country. Each of the structures provides enough shade for six parking spaces, and in turn Mr. Wheatley said one solar tree could generate enough power to charge six electric vehicles daily. Each solar tree generates between 25,000 to 35,000 kilowatt hours of power annually; he expects the six trees Kohl’s purchased to generate over 200,000 kWh of emissions-free electricity a year. “We take a different view from most solar companies,” Wheatley said, “what we do is design products that are capable of doing much more than simply compete with the utilities."
To that end, Wheatley insisted that a product like that of Envision Solar does more than simply promise to reduce Kohl’s utility bills. Such a “solar grove,” while offering an aesthetic quite different from standard solar installations, makes electric vehicle charging far more seamless, and provides cars shade from the Texas heat. Deployment is faster, too, as these solar trees can be deployed in as quickly as seven days. Efficiency also gets a boost because the solar panels bow to match the position of the sun -- effectively extending high noon throughout the day and therefore generating more electricity. Customers and employees in turn can directly see the benefits of solar — not necessarily true with rooftop arrays that clearly have an economic and environmental purpose, but generally go unnoticed.
For Kohl’s, working with companies such as Envision Solar helps diversify what is already an aggressive clean energy agenda. The company continues to retrofit existing stores while opening new ones that are Energy Star certified, up to 821 in total according to Kohl’s most recent sustainability report. Kohl’s is also a big purchaser of renewable energy certificates (RECs), to the tune of over 1.5 billion bought. And at last count, the company has 156 solar arrays in its solar portfolio.
So investment in solar projects such as the one at Kohl’s Dallas office can generate financial benefits, insisted Wheatley as we wrapped up our talk. While figures vary based on the cost of local utility rates, he claimed Kohl’s can expect the payback from the purchase of these solar trees to be less than 10 years. General Motors was one of Envision Solar’s first big customers, and while the company is going after other high-profile companies, the company has other products such as a mobile solar car charger within its portfolio as well.
The future certainly looks heady for solar as its cost reaches parity with that of fossil fuels. But it is also a fiercely competitive industry, not immune to price wars and strong-armed tactics typical within any sector. Companies such as Solar Envision present clean energy entrepreneurs a timeless business school lesson — product differentiation and going after a niche is a way to set your company apart from the competition and find success.
Image credit: Envision Solar