The sun emits energy in unlimited supply, heating our planet with 430 quintillion joules of energy every hour. Despite the energy draws of heavy industry, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and an interlinked web of global transportation, modern society burns approximately 410 quintillion joules of energy each year—matching only a single hour of the sun’s output. Our challenge in building a clean energy economy is not overcoming a lack of solar abundance, but finding the space and infrastructure to utilize the sun’s energy. Like many environmental issues, this is a question of land usage. How do we zone for energy production when renewables promise to reform the physical infrastructure of our lives? Not since rural towns based their economies around the ubiquitous presence of coal mines have our power sources been so dependent on our nation’s landscape—manifesting in solar farms, austere flanks of wind turbines, and local solar installations.
The modern appearance of the United States is defined by one particular structure: the grey, windowless warehouse. Large buildings that monopolize the sides of freeways and ex-urban manufacturing districts, warehouses are one face of contemporary life. Although our country is no longer a manufacturing economy, the U.S. is saturated with massive structures that store goods for e-commerce and food shipping. A flourishing industry, our national stock of warehouses has grown from 15,000 in 2010 to almost 20,000 today, and the sector employs over eight million workers. Successful corporations like Amazon, whose employees are the face of a new labor movement, and other food conglomerates have turned our country into a service and shipping economy. Warehouses are the physical marker of that economic shift. And if we hope to reach a net-zero economy, we cannot ignore their ecological impact. For food manufacturers looking to cut operating costs, and local governments hoping to decarbonize, solar rooftops realize the promise of a carbon-free industry.
In Chicago, a 260,000 square foot factory that once house famous candy manufacturer Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co is being converted into a warehouse and distribution center to meet the rising demand of fulfillment centers for online orders. This is a perfect example of a facility that could benefit from solar installations. Prologis, a logistics firm with the third greatest solar installer capacity in the United States, explains that 15 percent of a warehouse’s operating budget is spent on energy. Solar power has reached global grid parity with fossil energy, and will only become cheaper as installations increase and the price of components plummets. Food manufacturers skeptical about solar ROIs should broaden their timelines: any large business that does not green its infrastructure within the next fifteen years is guaranteeing higher operating costs. Last November, the International Energy Agency released their World Energy Outlook 2020, in which they crown solar the cheapest electricity in history. Now, the only question businesses face is how they should integrate solar into their infrastructure.
Renewables are modular. A modest solar panel functions as a local power source: its energy can be utilized onsite or transported across counties and states. Fossil energy never provided this geographical flexibility, because a coal mine or an oil well only produced energy at the source. Now businesses have the choice to draw renewables from a central grid or install solar atop their warehouses and produce their own energy. Although the latter process sounds arduous, local installations allow businesses to profit from energy generation, selling electricity back to a central grid when their panels produce excess energy. The great, flat plains of warehouse rooftops are the perfect for solar panels, and provide business owners the opportunity to rent extra space to solar companies, helping maximize their revenues.
A 2019 Chicago Tribune article profiles warehouse owner Eric Simon, who relies upon local solar to operate an energy-intensive facility that stores food used by the airline industry. Simon’s experience with solar both supports Prologis’ claims and adds political implications. Until Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) in 2017, which subsidized clean energy for businesses and consumers, Simon felt tethered to the fossil economy. Despite solar energy’s competitive status, local governments must still provide businesses financial incentives; rather than “neutral” actors following economic trends, states should mobilize their financial and political capital to stimulate a renewable economy.
A recent article in The Atlantic describes a “Green Vortex” built from piece-meal state subsidies and private-sector investments. Robinson Meyer, staff-writer at the magazine, claims that private sector deployments have lowered the United States’ carbon emissions without a single comprehensive climate bill passing through Congress. He argues that national programs—think the Green New Deal, or Biden’s American Jobs Plan—can accelerate the transition, but are not crucial to decarbonizing our economy. His message is one of hope and mediation: the government is broken, so we must allow states, municipalities, and businesses to be the chief arbiters of climate reform. I vehemently disagree with many of Meyer’s claims. We should be terrified that our government is too dysfunctional to save its populace from the climate crisis, and skeptical that our economy can reach net-zero without universal programs. Regardless, the “Green Vortex” is a valuable concept. If businesses are choosing clean energy over fossil fuels, we have reached a historical moment where decarbonization is both ethical and profitable.
Food manufacturers—whose operations are carbon-intensive—should take notice. The promise of cheaper energy will push them to adopt renewables and their decisions will further accelerate the transition (increasing the wind speed of the “Green Vortex”). Decarbonization can happen at a much quicker pace if programs like the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) are passed, which would allocate more than $30 billion of clean investment in Illinois. Regardless of state and federal actions, the financial imperative is already there: businesses with high electricity consumption can green their infrastructure and lower their operating costs.
In the coming decades, our economy will be defined by the traces of global shipping and the costs of storing goods. To reach net-zero carbon emissions, every piece of contemporary infrastructure must be engaged in the climate struggle. I hope that we can re-zone our communities with energy efficiency in mind, combatting urban and rural sprawl by reforming our built environment. For now, warehouses, their massive roofs facing the sky, provide an ample opportunity to generate clean energy.
A rooftop can be a productive force rather than one more component of a blighted landscape.