How Walgreens went off the grid

Walgreens, Florida bank erect buildings that will make their own power.

Walgreens shop in Evanston, Ill., packs in more than 800 solar panels, two wind turbines, and geothermal technology.

Pharmacy chain Walgreens opened what it calls America's first "zero energy" store. Installations throughout the building should generate enough energy to run it without a single electron from the power grid.

The new shop in Evanston, Ill., packs in more than 800 solar panels, two wind turbines, and geothermal technology. Altogether, they will generate an estimated 220,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, 28 percent more than the store will need.

"Somebody has to do this," says Jamie Meyers, who oversees sustainability at Walgreens's 8,000 stores. The company has already installed solar panels on 150 of its locations, switched to efficient lighting, and devised sophisticated energy monitors. "Now we want to take all of these ideas and put them together."

While Americans have attempted self-sufficient buildings for more than a decade, most projects have come from nonprofits and individuals – people willing to spend the extra money to make a statement. Through their experimentation, green technology has matured to a point at which corporate America now seems ready to join in.

Last year, PNC Bank opened its first net-zero-energy branch. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., location combines extensive solar panels on the outside with power-saving technology on the inside.

Hines, which has an upcoming 13-story office building in San Diego, will take a different route. The real estate developer plans to purchase methane from carbon-neutral sources, such as landfills, and convert the gas into electricity through fuel cells. The scheme should generate enough energy to power 25 Walgreens stores or 1,000 San Diego homes, making it the "largest net-zero energy commercial office building in the US," according to the company.

While these projects show off what green technology can accomplish, they've faced some criticism. Why spend huge amounts of money taking individual buildings off the grid, when that money could fund systematic changes that would reduce consumption overall? Mr. Meyers argues that it's not an either-or proposition. "We've committed to a chain-wide 20 percent energy reduction by 2020," he says. "We definitely plan on learning from this new store and applying those ideas across the chain."

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

This is an updated version of an article that ran in the April 1 issue of the Christian Science Monitor magazine.

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