Up on the Roof: Obama administration gives props to Whole Foods’ Gowanus greenhouse

April 30, 2014 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Gowanus Whole Foods has a greenhouse that won props from the Obama Administration. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese
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Greed is good? No – green is good.

An Obama Administration official came to Gowanus Wednesday to shine a spotlight on the new Whole Foods Market, praising its environmentally-conscious “green” energy-saving strategies and its rooftop greenhouse where lettuce and tomatoes are grown – then transported by elevator to the produce section.

“This is a great example of what’s possible in a grocery store,” Maria Vargas, a U.S. Department of Energy senior program advisor, told the Brooklyn Eagle at a press briefing at the supermarket.

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The publicly-traded upscale grocery chain just joined an Obama initiative called the Better Buildings Challenge, pledging to cut its energy consumption 20% by 2020 in 13 million square feet of retail space. The Austin, Tex.-based supermarket giant has more than 370 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Businesses and institutions that take part in the Better Buildings Challenge are required to have a “showcase project” – a facility with innovative, aggressive energy-saving measures, which can serve as an example to others. The Whole Foods at Third Avenue and 3rd Street, which opened to great fanfare in December, is the retailer’s showcase project.

It is located on the banks of the Gowanus Canal – a massively polluted Superfund site – and to contrast with that, the supermarket operator wants the store to be “a beacon of sustainability,” Tristam Coffin, a Whole Foods green mission specialist, told reporters.

The building operates about 60% more efficiently than the average U.S. grocery store, with total electrical savings of 2,513,868 kilowatt hours per year and an estimated yearly energy cost savings of more than $369,300, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

Impressive numbers, to be sure – but the part everybody was waiting for was a tour of the rooftop greenhouse, which is off-limits to shoppers.

“This is the only supermarket in the world with a commercial rooftop farm integrated into it,” said Viraj Puri, the co-founder of Gotham Greens, which operates the 20,000-square-foot facility.

He showed off verdant rows of hydroponically-grown butter lettuce, bok choy and basil beneath a triple-glazed glass roof in a room where computers regulate the temperature, which was around 75 degrees.

The basil smelled so good, it was hard to leave.

Instead of pesticides, Gotham’s workers deploy ladybugs and other “predatory insects” such as mites and parasitic wasps, he said. (If you have a hard time visualizing a ladybug as a predator, clearly you’re not thinking like a lettuce plant.)

Bumblebees are the insect of choice in the tomato house, where the temperature’s about 80 degrees and vines are trained to grow vertically and are 70 to 80 feet long. Pollination is their job. Luckily for wary visitors, the bees do their work in the evenings and did not make an appearance.

Gotham Greens did its first planting at the end of January and began harvesting in February, Puri said. The roof garden, which will grow 200 tons of food a year, supplies nine or 10 other Whole Foods as well as the Gowanus store, and several nearby restaurants.

The glass-roofed garden serves to insulate the store building.

Other energy-consumption savers include solar panels on the roofs of parking-lot car shelters, which offset 380,400 kilowatt-hours of electricity use from the grid – about 29% of the electricity used at the store – plus produce cases in the store that have glass doors on them to keep the cold air on the vegetables.

Participation in the Better Buildings Challenge makes Whole Foods eligible for federal tax credits, which could amount to tens of thousands of dollars for the Gowanus store, said Kathy Loftus, the company’s global leader of engineering and energy management. The retailer is also working on getting state NYSERDA grants.

The Better Buildings Challenge, launched in 2011, has 180 participants, including household names such as Macy’s and Manhattan-based organizations like New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

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