Friday, December 24, 2010

Solar Powered Bakery Produces 40,000 Loaves a Day

Baking and shipping 40,000 loaves of bread per day using the power of the sun may seem like a tall order, but Petaluma's Alvarado Street Bakery is up to the task thanks to a a newly installed system of solar panels to power their ovens.

The company just this week switched on a 1.5-acre bank of solar panels on the roof of its building on South McDowell Boulevard Extension in south Petaluma. The panels will soon offset 40 percent of the company's power needs, and they join a number of large solar arrays used by companies in town.

“It was really a no-brainer because there was data saying that as soon as we turned it on, there would be savings that we can pass on to workers,” said Michael Girkout, president of the company.

According to the city's building permitting department, the bakery's solar panels are one of a few large arrays in town. While not the largest — the company's roof houses 1,700 panels while other companies have as many as 2,500 — the efficiency of their 404-kilowatt system is exceptional.

“It is larger than most local (solar panel) systems,” said Chris Phipps, a representative from Stellar Energy, the Rohnert Park company that did the installation. Stellar used only components made in America in installing the system.

“It's very exciting for the city of Petaluma,” added Phipps.

Girkout said that while the panels made obvious economic sense, they are part of a deeper effort by the company to be socially and environmentally conscious.

“The solar project is just an extension of what we do,” he said. “We were ‘green' before it was even considered a word.”

The bakery, which was founded in 1979, is a democratic cooperative in which each employee owns one share of the company. That means that the solar panel project, which cost $1.8 million, was voted on by all 120 employees — and approved unanimously.

As a cooperative, production workers have a vote equal to the vote of executives, and employees have ensured a living wage for all workers. The company has about $24 million in revenues and pays the average production worker about $65,000 per year.

In fact, Alvarado Street Bakery was featured in Michael Moore's 2009 film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” showcasing an alternative to exploitative workplaces. Their democratic model was praised for encouraging workers to become invested in the company and its success.

The company was considering solar panels long ago, but made the choice after moving to Petaluma about three years ago from Rohnert Park, where it had rented a building for 25 years. The cost of panels has also decreased in recent years, making the switch more attractive.

“Now that we own the building, we are able to put up the panels,” said Girkout.

The company also prides itself in its organic ingredients and involvement in the community. And while they used to deal mostly with health food stores, their influence and popularity is growing.

“As organic and whole-grain products get more mainstream, mainstream groceries are picking up our products,” said Girkout. “Now, most of out new markets are in mainstream groceries like Raley's.”

Each day, the bread that comes back from the company's 30 delivery routes throughout Northern California is donated to shelters and soup kitchens. The company was also recently awarded for its environmental initiatives by two nationwide organizations.

Now that the solar panels have been switched on, the bakery will soon install an interactive kiosk in its lobby to allow visitors to see how much energy the solar panels are saving. The information will also available on the company's web page (

“We're really excited to turn it on,” said Girkout. “The employees here paid for it.”


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