Woolworth's store in Orange, NSW

As one of the most recognisable brands in Australia, Woolworths Group has set itself an ambitious goal: 100 per cent green energy by 2025 and net positive emissions by at least 2050. But as the country’s sixth largest electricity user, with almost 3300 stores that need to be kept cold, large-scale refrigeration units lining the walls and fleets of vehicles transporting groceries, are the targets achievable?

In a year that began in a choke of smoke, Woolworths Group manager of sustainability, health and quality, Alex Holt, said rising demand from consumers and investors make reaching the targets imperative. 

A raft of announcements over the past month – including plans for Power Purchase Agreements, switching its fleet of vehicles to electric, adding doors to fridges, rolling out more solar panels and zero food waste to landfill by 2025 – are part of the Woolworths Group’s plan for a low carbon future. 

“It is our hope that we get to [carbon positivity] at least years, if not a decade earlier,” Ms Holt said. 

The pledge is part of the newly announced Sustainability Plan 2025, which outlines steps to get “a big part of the way, but not fully”, Ms Holt said, adding that she has confidence technology and innovation will help with what’s left.

There is broad consensus that to achieve the large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed to reduce the risks of climate change, a broad portfolio of policies is required. Equally as important is support from a wide range of players. 

For the past three years, as climate change has worsened, demand from customers and investors to ramp up action has “steadily increased”, Ms Holt said. 

And as Australia’s summer bushfires destroyed thousands of homes earlier this year, concern heightened. 

“That made it very personal and tangible for a lot of people,” Ms Holt said, adding the plan has full support “from the board down”. 

Woolworths Group ‘s Alex Holt

“Our customers are absolutely wanting us to take leadership in sustainability… but it is not just our customers, it is also our team and it is also our investors.”

By 2030, Woolworths Group aims to reduce emissions from their operations by 63 per cent compared to a 2015 baseline, the Sustainability Plan outlines. 

“All new property developments will achieve a four Green Star design and as-built rating, and by 2025 we aim to have a five Green Star minimum standard,” the document states. 

While many of the changes will take place in the background – or overhead as roofs are adorned with more solar panels – in store the biggest difference for customers will be reducing the electricity consumption of power-hungry fridges. 

“Refrigeration is a major source of our energy consumption,” Ms Holt said. 

“One of the things that we have gotten placed in a number of our stores is the addition of doors to our refrigeration cases … and this can actually reduce our energy use by up to 30 per cent.” 

Power Purchase Agreements make the targets possible, energy experts say

In a statement last month, Woolworths Group CEO Brad Banducci flagged an investment of “tens of millions of dollars into renewable energy partnerships”, prioritising new green energy projects “to spur growth in the industry and new jobs in the sector”. 

It will be these Power Purchase Agreements that will cement Woolworths Group as a frontrunner and get them to their targets, said professor Alistair Sproul, head of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales. 

“In the past, people would have looked at a Power Purchase Agreement and said ‘they’re not really doing anything’,” Professor Sproul said.

“But that has totally changed now that renewables are the cheapest option.” 

In June last year, the University of New South Wales – spread over 38-hectares and dotted with buildings – announced it would make the switch to 100 per cent renewables by 2020.

The university entered a 15-year PPA with the Sunraysia Solar Farm in western NSW, purchasing 124,000 MWh of solar electricity to meet its annual energy needs.

“It’s a whole new ballgame,” Professor Sproul said. 

“I’ve worked at the university on and off since the 80s, and bit by bit we tried to get sustainable features into the UNSW buildings, and that was a long hard slog. 

“But next year, once the connection is finalised, we will be buying 100 per cent renewable energy from a solar farm in Western New South Wales. 

“Not only is that making a big difference on the environmental front, but that was the cheapest offer on the table.” 

Scientia professor Deo Prasad, also from the University of New South Wales, holds just as much confidence in Woolworths Group meeting its targets. 

“[Woolworths Group has] a major responsibility for leadership, it is a major player in the supply chain,” Professor Prasad said. 

“When you look at their ambition it is good they have [milestones] and Power Purchase Agreements are what will make it happen at a cost effective rate.

“If [Woolworths Group] can look at high levels of efficiency, on-site [renewable energy] generation, on-site storage and as well as offsets… these are all short term, in a climate emergency world, achievable goals that are not far reaching.” 

The next frontier is paying back embodied carbon debt

While many of the details of how Woolworths Group will reduce its operational carbon footprint have been outlined in the Sustainability Plan, Professor Prasad points out little attention has been given to a crucial factor, embodied carbon debt. 

Professor Prasad, who was the CEO of the Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living and was awarded an Order of Australia in 2014 for his services to sustainability and renewable energy, says “embodied carbon is a carbon debt which needs to be paid back”. 

“In today’s world, if you have an embodied carbon debt, which is an existing building with high a carbon footprint because of the materials used, then how do you offset that?”

He says it is relatively easy to offset the operational carbon emissions of a building through PPAs, but organisations will need to fork out extra to pay for the past. 

“Leading companies are beginning to look at paying off that carbon debt,” he said, “and it is not that much more expensive.

“If you have a Power Purchase Agreement for offsetting all your operational energy you only have to (purchase) an additional 10 or 15 per cent to begin to offset your (embodied) carbon.

“A lot of companies are starting to look at a 2030 goal and a 2050 goal, and that 2050 goal is usually inclusive of paying off that embodied carbon debt… if Woolworths is mindful, their 2050 goal should include embodied carbon. That would be good.” 

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