A First: Net-Zero Manufacturing

This is the first time we’ve heard of a manufacturer running completely on solar – 2.77 megawatts provides more than they need.

OPEX Corp., which makes automated mail handling and package-picking equipment, occupies a 30-acre campus five miles east of Philadelphia, in New Jersey. Their PV system is the largest for a privately held company in the state.

by Jim McMahon

In New Jersey, a leading manufacturer of automated material-handling equipment recently slashed its utility bills 84% thanks to a huge solar PV array – 2.77 megawatts (MW).

OPEX Corp. now produces more than 100% of the electricity needed to operate its 250,000-square-foot manufacturing, distribution and administrative complex in Moorestown, NJ. That makes the facility net-zero for electricity.

It’s the largest solar installation in New Jersey by a privately held company.

Efficiency Measures

Before going solar, OPEX reduced internal loads. "We were spending a lot of money on electricity, and were constantly battling to reduce those costs," says Dave Andrews, OPEX Facilities Manager.

"We had installed efficiency fluorescent lighting throughout the manufacturing/ distribution areas and in our administrative offices, and added motion-sensitive lighting in other areas. We also installed a computer-based programmable system for our rooftop HVAC units to run on a more efficient user-occupied basis. These changes produced significant savings."

Late in 2009, CEO Dave Stevens began exploring solar as a next cost-saving step. OPEX conducted a systematic cost-benefit analysis, taking into account the company’s long-term business and sustainability goals.

"This was a logical next step for us," says Andrews. "As we started learning about it, the potential began making good financial sense. The incentives looked really attractive, including a 30% rebate from the federal government." OPEX also expected to benefit from solar renewable energy credits, then worth $660 per megawatt-hour.

Optimizing Solar Energy Use

OPEX selected H2 Contracting of Marlton, NJ as a general contractor. The traditional grid energy consumption for the Moorestown complex was 2.6 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. 

To cover all that, H2 designed a 2.77 MW solar installation consisting of 8372, 250-watt Canadian Solar modules covering the roofs of two buildings and two parking pavilions, along with a three-acre solar field array, for a total projected annual output of 2.77 kWh.

This was previously a softball field:

Solar OPEX manufacturing

"The solar system installed at OPEX is not a typical design," says Mark Heenan, president and LEED-Accredited Professional with H2. "Because we mounted the panels on multiple rooftops, canopies and a field array, the 82,000 square feet of PV panels are oriented in six different directions, and with various tilts to better capitalize on available sunlight and space. We used Satcon’s Smart Combiner to optimize production." The array, on RBI racking, sends power at 590 volts to four Satcon Solstice 500 inverters.

The grid-tied system, completed in April 2012, directly supports the company’s manufacturing and distribution operations and administrative offices.

Embracing Sustainability

The company’s parking pavilions now provide two EV charging stations for employee use. All scrap materials and oils used in manufacturing, and paper products from administrative offices, are recycled. OPEX sank its own 175-foot well to irrigate eight acres of open land on campus, replanted with native fescue grass that requires little water. Rainwater runoff from the 22 acres of roofing and parking areas is funneled to open ground to percolate into the aquifer.

OPEX products – automated mail sorting and material-handling products – are designed to be energy efficient and sustainable. Its Mail Matrix sorter and perfect Pick warehouse picking system rely on robot delivery vehicles, equipped with ultra-capacitors to recapture energy during operation.


Jim McMahon writes on renewable energy and sustainability, with feature stories appearing in hundreds of industrial and technology publications throughout the world.

This article first appeared in Solar Today (March/April 2014), the magazine of the American Solar Energy Society. 

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