Our Journey to 100% Renewable Power

A Story of Soap, Bees, Teachers, Farmers and Community

“There is an urgent need to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, dramatically reduce wasted energy, and significantly shift our power supplies from oil, coal, and natural gas to wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources.” – Bill McKibben, Environmentalist

“I’m convinced that if every home had solar panels on the roof, we could create all the energy we need without exploiting the surface of the Earth.” – Dr. Bronner, 1986

It Starts with the Sun

Dr. Bronner’s ethos and intention is to do business in a way that is not only sustainable, but actually regenerative—leaving the world better off because of what we do. And for a business on a planet facing a climate crisis, our company’s energy footprint is a critical piece of this regenerative puzzle. When we moved into a bigger building in 2013, we decided to look at rooftop solar as a way of generating our own renewable electricity to power our manufacturing plant. At the time, our hope was that we could power our operations in Vista, California entirely from our rooftop solar installation, and be 100% renewably powered.

There was just one problem: at the time, the roof of our building was not suited for rooftop solar. Kris Lin-Bronner, who was heading up the initiative then, wasn’t deterred, and she worked with designers to instead install solar carports on all buildable space in our parking lots. This was a great solution that provided shade for employee’s cars while allowing us to generate solar power for our plant, and our solar-powered system was installed in conjunction with native drought tolerant landscaping to reduce our water use. A win-win-win!

Our on-site solar installation was the exciting beginning of our renewable power journey, and we hooked up our solar panels to our production equipment with pride. And then we hit another challenge: we quickly learned that our beautiful new panels would only generate about 40% of our total power needs. In addition, we learned that number would likely shrink over time. Solar panels get less efficient over their lifetime of about 25 years, and our power needs are going to continue to increase as we install new machine lines and increase our production. So we had to keep looking for renewable power solutions.

Eco-Choice: Buying Renewable Power Locally

The next solution came through our local power provider, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), which has a program called EcoChoice that allows customers to purchase up to 100% verified renewable power from the grid for a small premium. The money from the premium goes to support the construction of more steel-in-the-ground solar and wind projects in San Diego and Imperial counties. So it was a total no-brainer for us to start participating in Eco-Choice.

SDGE customers in San Diego county should know that EcoChoice is available for both businesses and residents. And residents don’t even need to be homeowners to participate. In fact, I rent a home in San Diego, and am proudly signed up for EcoChoice . Many people think that the only path to renewable energy is through installation of solar panels—a great option for some families, but only one of many ways to access and support renewable energy nowadays. Dr. Bronner’s is very excited that as Community Choice Energy programs are implemented around San Diego county and throughout the U.S., more businesses and residents than ever will have access to affordable renewable power. Check with your local energy provider to see what renewable power options are available to you!

Breaking Through the Clouds

When the sun is shining, generating electricity for our soap production through our solar panels in sunny Southern California is elegant and efficient. We’re drawing power from the panels, our machines are running—it’s like we’re drawing power straight from the sun! But if we’re running our machines in the early morning darkness or it’s cloudy outside, we need more power than the solar panels can provide. Some systems have a battery which stores electricity, but we haven’t installed that yet at Dr. Bronner’s (it can be a challenge to power equipment from a battery, though it’s something we’re definitely exploring). The way that our solar system is set up now, if we’re drawing more power for our machines than our panels can provide because of the weather or the time of day, we end up drawing from our utility’s standard mix of power. And the standard grid mix in San Diego County is currently only about 45% renewable energy.

Photo courtesy of Organic Valley

So then how do we meet our goal of 100% renewable power? We don’t currently have a way to generate more power or store it onsite, and we can’t buy it from our grid. Fortunately, we learned about a market tool called Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs. The basic idea behind RECs is that when renewable power is generated—be it wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, or biomass power—you can separate the power itself from its third-party verified “renewable-ness.” This means that if someone generates renewable energy, they can either sell the energy together with its renewable-ness—at a premium price—or they can choose to separate the two and sell the power to one party (at standard energy prices) and sell just the “renewable-ness” to a different party. This is useful in situations like ours, where we want to make sure that we’re buying 100% renewable power, but can’t actually generate it all ourselves or purchase it all directly from our grid connection. RECs allow us to claim the environmental benefits of renewable power going into the grid somewhere else. RECs also help create a market for renewable power by incentivizing and paying for its creation.

Midwestern Bees, Canadian Teachers & California Soapmakers

When we started to look around for where we could purchase RECs from we found that they were readily available from huge, non-transparent renewable projects, such as vast solar farms in China managed and sold by large banks or investment firms. These did not seem like a good fit for us, as Dr. Bronner’s is interested in transparency throughout our entire supply chain—and this extends to our energy purchases.

Fortunately, through our participation in the Climate Collaborative and our connections with fellow mission-driven business Organic Valley, we learned about an incredible community-supported solar collaboration in the Midwest that Organic Valley had developed in partnership with One Energy Renewables, a fellow certified B Corp. The award-winning partnership is a collection of ten solar installations located on farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—land that is either organic to begin with or whose owners were willing to transition from conventional corn and soy to organically managed pollinator habitat underneath the new solar panels. The power mix in rural communities in the Midwest tends to have low percentages of renewable energy—there’s often a lot of coal being burned to supply the power for those communities. Many farmers want to reduce their electricity costs and go green through solar installations on their farms, but they usually need investors, as they don’t have the capital required to finance such an installation on their own.

One Energy Renewables was able to structure the financing for the project, and the primary investment for the project comes from a teacher’s retirement account in Canada. Solar panels are a very safe, but very slow-growing, investment—you need “patient” capital to finance it. The returns can be excellent and reliable, but they’re often slow since the panels are around for about 25 years, and the income comes from their electricity purchase over time. A retirement fund is a perfect—if unexpected—investment partner. Meanwhile, the local power providers were happy to buy the renewable power produced by the project, since it was cheaper than their existing electricity supply, which came primarily from coal. The multiple power providers in these communities weren’t interested in claiming or selling the renewable-ness of the power since their customers—small businesses and rural community members—were generally not interested in paying a premium for renewable power. In short, this was the perfect situation for the creation of RECs. All they needed now were customers to buy the RECs.

When I found out that Organic Valley was looking to sell RECs from these 10 community-supported solar projects in the Midwest, I got very excited. Organic Valley is one of our close industry partners, and we’ve worked extensively with them on disaster relief efforts. They are also a cooperative, owned by small-holder organic farmers, with full transparency throughout their supply chain. I knew we could trust them, and trust these RECs. We’re also connected to One Energy Renewables through the B Corp community—a group of businesses around the world committed to using business as a force for good, and balancing the pursuit of profit with social and environmental benefit. These were two perfect partners for us. And because of the trust and relationships we have with them, we were able to get a really good price for these RECs—much cheaper than they would’ve been if we had bought them on the open market from one of these larger, non-transparent vendors.

Because this is such a direct, grassroots, and transparent partnership, I had the great privilege of going to one of the participating farm installations, the farm we are buying our RECs from, located in Lanesboro, Minnesota. I visited the town, met the landowner and got to stand under the solar panels, marveling at how this installation is providing 30% of the power needed by the whole town! The landowner makes money by renting his land for the project, and the cost of power goes down for the whole community. Additionally, there are great environmental benefits: we’re increasing the amount of renewable energy powering these farms and rural communities, while increasing pollinator habitat in the agricultural belt of our country.

A Replicable Win-Win-Win-Win-Win Model

Community members in Lanesboro were initially surprised to see how much power could be generated on such a small bit of land, but neighbors are now considering solar installations of their own. In addition, neighboring towns to Lanesboro can see the benefits of this project and are getting excited to do something similar, and the local power providers in the area are seeking other landowners and farmers who might be willing to put in similar solar installations. The future of energy independence in this country may be uncertain, but there’s one thing we do know for sure: the greatest predictor of whether or not someone installs solar is if their neighbors install solar. So, we’re crossing our fingers that this is just the beginning and more partnerships like this are on the way.

Photo courtesy of Organic Valley

Although peppered with hurdles on a steep learning curve, our journey to 100% renewable was paved with grit, hope, and collaboration—and now that we’ve arrived, we couldn’t be prouder that we’re a part of a partnership that’s a win for business, people, and the planet alike. We hope that other companies see this cooperative, community-supported, pollinator-friendly approach as a model for how to make their operations 100% renewably powered too. Together, we can power our businesses from the sun, increase the amount of renewable energy that is produced for others, reduce the burning of dirty coal, lower electricity costs for farmers and rural communities, and increase pollinator habitat. We hope you’ll join us!

For more resources on installing solar, choosing renewable power, and working together to create a new, renewable energy future, check out these great links:

Grid Alternatives
Community Choice Energy
SDGE’s EcoChoice Program
Most Important Thing to Know if You’re Considering Solar
How Organic Valley Lit 10 Communities with Solar While Meeting its Clean Energy Goals
Why Everybody Loves Pollinator-Friendly Solar
Midwest Renewable Energy Association
About Renewable Energy Certificates
Difference between Offsets and RECs

Author Profile

Darcy Shiber-Knowles

Darcy Shiber-Knowles is the Director of Operational Sustainability & Innovation at Dr. Bronner's. She is passionate about food, environmental stewardship and community building, and is an accomplished singer and practicing yogi in her free time.

See all stories by Darcy Shiber-Knowles