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Aggregating Energy Since 2006

Wal-Mart Thinks Solar

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How is Wal-Mart doing, one year after initiating energy efficiency programs? (link to article on sustainablog) It has learned some interesting lessons and appears to be committed rather than attempting to greenwash.

Already, some of the experimental technologies are proving to be successful. LED lights installed in exterior signs and grocery-, freezer-, and jewelry- cases use less electricity, contribute less heat and have a longer lifespan. Wal-Mart has been using LED lights for all building-mounted exterior lit signs for the last two years and now after 16 months of testing in the experimental stores, Wal-Mart has decided to integrate these lights into freezer cases in new Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores nationwide beginning in January 2007. Other energy efficient lighting opportunities continue to be monitored at the experimental stores.

In a different sustainablog post, it notes that Wal-mart has a "'request for proposals' (RFP) for solar power generating systems for some stores in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New Jersey."

I have to wonder about choosing those particular states. The only common denominator between them in my limited knowledge is that they all have strong policies to encourage PV investment. Regardless of where it invests, it could seriously boost the PV market.

Joel Makower's blog on sustainable business examined this Wal-Mart RFP also.

The confidential RFP document, which I recently reviewed, is part of the company's stated commitment "to reduce our overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the next eight years" and to "design a store that will use 30% less energy and produce 30% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than our 2005 design within the next 3 years," according to the RFP.

He goes on to comment:

What's the impact of all this? Wal-Mart doesn't mention a specific purchase size, but my sources tell me that the company could put solar on as many as 340 stores in the next few years. Assuming that each store utilized about 300 kilowatts of solar panels (it could be as much as 500 kilowatts), we're talking roughly 100 megawatts of solar. To put that into perspective, the solar system currently being installed at Google headquarters in California -- the largest single corporate solar installation in history -- is 1.6 MW, about 1/60th the size.

Of course, it's unclear whether Wal-Mart will install solar in all of those locations. The company could look at the bidders' numbers and decide to install solar at only a handful of stores -- or none at all.

I have to assume that Wal-Mart will not dive too deeply into solar. It is too expensive for a company made famous by fiscally conversative focus.

Wal-Mart is really working both ends of the energy spectrum though - from generating renewably to encouraging its users to become more efficient. WCCO recently did a segment on Wal-Mart and its push for compact fluorescent lights, as did the NY Times. The following is from the NYT.

At the same time that it pressured suppliers, Wal-Mart began testing ways to better market the bulbs. In the past, Wal-Mart had sold them on the bottom shelf of the lighting aisle, so that shoppers had to bend down. In tests that started in February, it gave the lights prime real estate at eye level. Sales soared.

To show customers how versatile the bulbs could be, Wal-Mart began displaying them inside the lamps and hanging fans for sale in its stores. Sales nudged up further.

To explain the benefits of the energy-efficient bulbs, the retailer placed an education display case at the end of the aisle, where it occupied four feet of valuable selling space — an extravagance at Wal-Mart. Sales climbed even higher.

In August 2006, the chain sold 3.94 million, nearly twice the 1.65 million it sold in August 2005, according to a person briefed on the numbers.

But to reach 100 million, Wal-Mart has to do much more — and that, executives concede, is where the biggest challenges rest. In the fall, the company began reaching out to competing retailers, Internet companies and even filmmakers.

The goal was to turn its sales campaign into a broader cultural movement.

We need to keep an eye on Wal-Mart. These energy-saving moves are great but cannot make up for the downsides to Wal-Mart in terms of how it treats its employees. I think Joel Makower put it best in his post:

It's far from a done deal, and there are significant hurdles to overcome. Not the least of these will be to accommodate Wal-Mart's voracious appetite for renewables as well as its legendary cost-cutting pressure. The company's opportunity is to help bring the price of solar down to earth. The challenge will be to do it in a way that doesn't negatively exploit its suppliers, or those that toil for them.