Nov 29, 2012 • By

San Adrian solar panels

The installation of nearly 4,500 solar panels at our San Adrian plant in northern Spain is just the latest in a series of environmental efforts that have earned the plant a reputation as one of the most innovative in that region.

The plant already receives all of its electricity – representing one-third of its energy overall – from renewable sources such as wind power. And it has significantly trimmed its water and energy usage rates in recent years.

Pablo Fernandez, the plant’s environmental, health and safety manager, describes the solar panel project as part of a renewable energy culture ingrained within the fabric of the San Adrian facility.

“We have included the triple P – people, planet and profit – in our decision-making process. That’s why these kinds of projects are feeding our ideas pipeline. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) represents the way we do business. We believe in giving back to the community, and the environment benefits from our activity,” Pablo says.

Community benefits

The idea for the solar panels originated four years ago during a conversation between San Adrian plant manager John Roszbach and Ignacio Barbadillo, director of operations and development shops for Häagen-Dazs in Spain.

“Ignacio told me that there were companies in Spain looking for roof space to install devices such as solar panels and telephone receivers. I thought it was great idea, and knew that our plant would be a good fit,” says John.

The installation of the 5.5 feet by 3.35 feet (1,650 millimeters by 991 millimeters) devices was completed in July and marks the first time a General Mills plant in Europe has solar panels—a collection of solar cells designed to turn the sun’s energy into electricity.

Four years ago, General Mills installed its first solar panels at our Minneapolis global headquarters’ East Wing building – and at two plants in China – to heat water. Then a General Mills facility in Massachusetts followed in spring 2010 with solar panels on its roof. Later that year, more were put in place at our headquarters with that energy used to power parking ramp light fixtures.

While General Mills owns all of those installations, it does not own the ones in Spain.

The solar panels at the San Adrian plant were installed through a unique arrangement: The plant rented its roof space in a 25-year lease with MB Solar, a Spain-based company that specializes in solar energy. MB Solar installed the German-manufactured panels, and then sold them to several private investors.

Each solar panel generates 250 watts of electricity, so combined they generate nearly 1.5 million kilowatt hours annually.

That’s enough to supply 130 average U.S. homes with electricity, but not nearly enough to meet San Adrian’s energy needs.

Since General Mills does not own the solar panels, the company won’t directly benefit from the electricity generated. Instead, this electricity will go directly into the network of Spain energy supplier Iberdrola, which in turn will sell the electricity to customers. General Mills can purchase electricity, and John says the company will consider doing so.

Spanish officials visit

The plant’s years-long dedication toward sustainable energy hasn’t gone unnoticed by industry peers throughout Europe, or the community.

On the energy front, General Mills is viewed by government officials as one of the most creative companies in the state of Navarra, where San Adrian resides. In June, the plant hosted a group of state officials, including Lourdes Goicoechea, Navarra’s vice president and minister for economy, finance, industry and employment.

Goicoechea (center, wearing black clothing), vice president of the Navarra government for Economy, Industry, Taxes and Employment, and the San Adrian leadership team.

“She was very impressed with the work we are doing on managing our waste flows, and also the solar panel project management, especially in this very challenging economic period,” says John.

And General Mills’ steady path along the green energy route has influenced others.

“Our company is always looking for continuous improvement of processes and performance, and this is affecting and triggering local companies and suppliers as well in a positive manner as they innovate and grow along with General Mills,” says Pablo.

Preparing for solar energy growth

The concept of solar energy has been around for decades, but solar panels can be expensive to produce while payback from the installation is not always evident. That’s why they haven’t caught on.

But that could change, and General Mills wants to be prepared, says Jon Russett, the company’s Supply Chain Energy program manager.

“Although energy prices are somewhat stagnant, this is temporary at best,” says Jon. “As the prices increase, those companies that are pursuing renewable energy and trying to understand the strategic fit are positioning themselves to have a competitive edge. There will be a time when it will be cost effective for us to deploy more systems. When that time comes, we need to be ready.”