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Domino Sugars sign goes solar

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Think sunshine — not just sweetness — when you see the Domino Sugars sign lighting up the Inner Harbor at night.

Solar panels have been installed on a rooftop at the sugar refinery off Key Highway to illuminate the neon fixture that's long been a landmark of the Baltimore skyline. The photovoltaic array is part of a push by Domino and its corporate parent, Florida-based ASR Group, to make the world's leading producer of cane sugar a little greener.

With the $125,000 solar installation and other moves, "we hope to show Baltimore every day that sustainability is top-of-mind here and at our facilities across the globe," said Peter O'Malley, ASR Group's vice president of corporate relations.

The company also plans to issue its workforce new hard hats made from sugar cane, replacing their old petroleum-based plastic helmets. O'Malley said the new safety hats are as sturdy as the old ones. They're just made from a more renewable material, which happens to be a waste byproduct of the company's sugar business.

And a new electric vehicle charging station has been added at the Inner Harbor plant. It can power up to two cars at a time.

Domino Sugar aims to show off the rooftop solar array and its other initiatives at an Earth Day event Tuesday, to which state legislators and other public officials have been invited.

The company is a major employer, with about 600 workers in Baltimore and a like number based elsewhere in Maryland. Fourteen percent of the cane sugar sold across the nation comes from the Key Highway plant, one of six refineries operated by ASR Group across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Domino refinery is one of hundreds of Maryland businesses to try generating at least some of their power from the sun.

"Businesses, small and large, are looking to incorporate solar in their energy budgets for a variety of reasons," said Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association.

State incentives and tax credits are available while overall costs have come down, making solar panels more attractive, especially to business owners seeking the "peace of mind" of being able to generate power in the event of an outage, Sleeper said.

The 76 blue solar panels covering the roof of Domino's old administration building can produce 41,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to Stephan Levitsky, ASR Group's director of corporate sustainability. The renewable energy should offset an estimated 29 metric tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide that would be released annually to yield that much power from fossil fuels, he said.

Company officials originally hoped to install enough panels to generate up to 100,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity but "we just couldn't find enough real estate to make it feasible," Levitsky said.

Other buildings in the refinery complex with bigger roofs either were unable to support the weight of the panels or had other issues, such as steam wafting over the main factory building, that might interfere with sunlight reaching the panels.

The refinery already generates much of the power it uses, Levitsky noted, harnessing the steam produced by its processing of raw sugar.

The company covered part of the photovoltaic installation costs, Levitsky said, with a combination of government grants and tax credits, plus the sale of solar "credits" to power companies, a program created by the state to support renewable energy. Even so, he estimated it would take about nine years before the investment in self-generated power would pay for itself.

Though only one of the plant's workers — its electrician — now drives an electric car, the company hopes the charging station encourages others to make greener transportation choices, with free power to anyone who can plug in, said O'Malley, who is Gov. Martin O'Malley's brother.

"I am excited about the work we have completed so far, and there is much more to come," said Levitsky.

The plant changes are the latest meant to modernize the longtime manufacturer, which last year began power-washing decades' worth of grime from a facility that has been there since 1922.

The Earth Day event also helps to burnish Domino's environmental record. The company has paid a total of $350,000 in penalties since 2010 to settle alleged air and water pollution violations at the refinery.

In addition to levying a $200,000 penalty, the Environmental Protection Agency entered into a consent decree with the company in 2012, requiring it to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, an ingredient in summertime smog and also a potential contributor to the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland Department of the Environment also took enforcement action against the company in 2010 and 2011, levying $150,000 in fines for multiple discharges of sugar into the harbor and for alleged shortcomings in preventing rain from washing sugar into the water.

Peter O'Malley said the company has taken steps to address each of the problems cited by federal and state regulators. The refinery has cut its nitrogen oxide emissions by more than half, he said, and put in a system that can detect and stop future accidental discharges of sugar in the plant's wastewater.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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