In this case study, Hortifrut lays out their floating photovoltaic solar panel sustainability initiative. Here they discuss their unique approach to harvesting abundant solar energy in a way that works with their natural landscape. This initiative shows that a little ingenuity can go a long way in solving difficult sustainability issues.
In the lexicon of sustainability, the term solar panels usually needs no introduction, but what if land and space are too limited for solar panels? Thinking outside the box, Hortifrut found a creative solution to solar harvesting that works with the natural landscape of their farms Their multi-tiered solution has cut costs on their electric bill, generated a profit for excess energy and had a positive impact on their resources and the environment.
Founded in 1983, Hortifrut has become a global leader in berry production and distribution. In 1989, they adopted a vertical integration business model based on strategic alliances, uniting the best partners of the southern hemisphere with the best partners in the northern hemisphere. From breeding varieties to marketing and sales, what began in the VIII region of Chile as a dream to provide the world with berries all year long, has now expanded their berry farms to approximately 12 countries, with global partnerships in five of the seven continents.
As strong advocates for sustainability, Hortifrut’s culture is centered around their people, the communities in which they live, and the environment, and they are committed to making a positive impact wherever they operate.
Certified as B Corp in 2018, Hortifrut Chile (a subsidiary of Hortifrut South America), became the largest Chilean company to obtain this notable international sustainability recognition, which is reserved for companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance and requires annual sustainability reporting. With many ongoing sustainability initiatives, it is evident that Hortifrut has earned this prestigious certification. Their annual report in terms of the environment covers energy, water, carbon footprint and plastic, and in 2019, they were presented with B Corp’s Best For The World: Environment Award.
According to Hortifrut Chile S.A. Committee Chair, Ramiro Soffia, “Hortifrut’s mission is to enchant the world by enriching people's lives, offering the most delicious and healthy berries, with a team of collaborators and partners who generate a positive impact on the environment and on their communities.” This mission, centered around environment and community, is met through five pillars of sustainability:
- Carbon Footprint - Measure, quantify and reduce in each area of the company the gas emissions that contribute to climate change
- Water: Continuous improvement in water use resources and pollution, with an emphasis on saving and technifying water systems
- Community: Contribute to the economic and social progress of the surrounding communities, investing in programs related to education, culture, health and environment issues
- Sustainable Packaging: Permanent research, development and implementation of packaging that responds to a circular economy
- Renewable energies: Replace the energy used in the different production processes with renewable energies
Sustainability is a group effort. As Hortifrut’s Executive Vice President Nicolás Moller puts it “We can't do everything by ourselves, but there are groups out there, there are good suppliers out there…sometimes it is a matter of identifying those right partnerships to create the solutions…that helps tremendously.”
While each sustainability pillar is equally important, this case study focuses mainly on renewable energy.
The opportunity: Harnessing natural resources with limited space
Like many farming operations, Hortifrut farms initially purchased energy from the power grid, which relies on nonrenewable resources like coal and natural gas. While this may be the easiest and most common way to power a farm because there is no upfront investment needed and, in most cases, the system is already set up for use. But there are downsides to this method of sourcing energy.
First, the company has limited choices on where their energy comes from: petroleum, coal, or natural gas. Second, there is no control over the cost and, on a long-term basis, ends up being more expensive than alternative energy. Electricity has to be generated and distributed, and these processes use energy supplied by fuel. Fuel costs vary, especially when there is high demand. This leads to high prices for fuel and, in turn, higher costs to produce electricity. Then, there is the impact on the environment.
Almost all parts of the electricity system can affect the environment, and the extent of these impacts depend on how and where the electricity is generated and delivered. These effects include:
- Emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants
- Discharges of pollution into water bodies, including thermal pollution
- Generation of solid waste, which may include hazardous waste
- Land use for fuel production, power generation, and transmission and distribution lines
- Effects on plants, animals, and ecosystems that result from the air, water, waste, and land impacts above
Given these negative environmental impacts, Hortifrut realized the need to reevaluate their energy structure.
In 2019, they began sourcing an innovative solar farming program to replace the electric requirements they had in their berry production and to counter the effects of utility-sourced electric. Solar farms collect sunlight via solar panels and operate much like power plants (i.e., like a natural gas power plant or other source of energy generation), but rather than using nonrenewable resources, they harvest the power of the sun. The problem? In a geologically mountainous country like Chile, efficient use of available farmland is key and solar farms can take up acres of much-needed land, depending on how many megawatts of output is required. With this in mind, Hortifrut put their ingenuity to work.
The solution: Floating photovoltaic solar panels
At first glance, traditional solar farms might seem the best way to improve energy conservation efforts, but a traditional solution is not always the best solution—especially when farmable land is at a premium. Instead, Hortifrut chose ingenuity over traditional solar farms, installing floating photovoltaic (FPV) solar panels.
Floating photovoltaic panels float on top of existing water reservoirs and preserve valuable farming acreage that would be otherwise unusable if occupied by traditional solar panel plants. The panels need to be affixed to a buoyant structure that keeps them above the surface and allows them to rise and drop with the water level.
Where traditional panels lose efficiency as temperatures rise, the bodies of water that host floating solar arrays help cool the solar equipment, which means the panels produce electricity at higher efficiencies in hot climates than land solar panel structures. The panels also work in the reverse way.
FPV panels help preserve water by covering a large portion of the reservoir’s surface. The shade provided by the panels reduces water evaporation which, given the hot northern Chilean climate and over 10 years of mega-drought status, is critical. The shade provided by the floating solar panel also helps reduce the presence of algae blooms in the water that can lead to the death of plants and animals living in the reservoir.
To begin the project, Hortifrut contracted with their provider, Solarity, who made the initial investment of the panels as well as transported and assembled them onsite. Solarity provides the service as a Power Purchase Agreement in which Hortifrut will benefit from clean energy at a cheaper rate than conventional energy. In addition, Solarity takes care of the operations and maintenance and will replace the panels as more efficient technology becomes available throughout the life of the 15-year contract.
The FPV system is also integrated with the Chilean power grid and allows excess power to be sold back to the electric company. This accomplishes a zero-waste system as no solar energy is lost once collected.
During the contract period, the provider receives the excess energy generated, which helps them recover their investment, and Hortifrut receives the savings on their electric bill each month. Upon fulfillment of the contract, the unused energy generated will then go to Hortifrut who can, in turn, sell it back to the electric company.
Soffia and Moller agree that the outcome is a win-win…it’s good for everyone.”
The takeaway: Environmental sustainability and beyond
Hortifrut has successfully implemented FPV solar plants on 18 of their farms in Chile—one of which is the largest floating photovoltaic solar plants connected to the country’s electric grid—and is now meeting 50% of their entire electrical demand and up to 70% in some cases (depending on the sun and the solar production), in addition to saving from 7% to 10% on their electric bill each month. With 2.4 megawatts of power produced in Chile the solar program serves as a powerful success story related to innovation and sustainability.
With the proven success of their solar farms in Chile, they are currently analyzing the potential on a 2000 hectares farm in Peru the largest floating photovoltaic solar panel project in South America that will generate 2.9 megawatts of power. But their endeavors do not stop with environmental initiatives.
Hortifrut provides internet access to rural communities across Chile, which benefits the lives of members of local communities. In addition, they implemented a mobile dental service unit that travels to rural areas in Chile and Peru. This service provides free dental care for the farmers and members of the local communities, benefiting approximately 2500 people.
They developed and implemented a child daycare service for employees of Hortifrut called “Uno Mas,” which is a free service and provides daily care for over 240 children in Peru. Social responsibility is clearly exemplified in these projects as Hortifrut assists the communities and the lives of its employees.
Hortifrut is also a member of the Berry Sustainable Initiative. Part of the group’s work includes finding solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of berry packaging through earth-friendly labels and the increased use of recyclable material for shipping.
With innovation and sustainability being integral parts of Hortifrut’s mission, along with the five pillars – Carbon Footprint, Water, Community, Sustainability Packaging, Renewable Energies – to back them up, Hortifrut remains a cornerstone company in the field of innovation, progress and sustainability.
As Soffia explains, “Sustainability is not something that is going to come from the outside, you need to, as a company, have a culture of sustainability and work on it. [This is how] you will find the best way to solve the problems and help the communities that are surrounding you.”