Green is not just the color of money, it is the color of social-responsibility

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Going Greener: Wal-Mart Plan New Solar Power Initiative

The parking lot at the Sam's Club in Palmdale, California looks like others in Wal-Mart Stores' empire, except for one thing. Seventeen wind turbines spin atop the parking lot lights, producing up to 5% of the store's energy.

The turbines, installed in March, represent the largest retail installation of its type in the U.S. and a major test of the technology, Wal-Mart says.

In a nearby city, Lancaster, a Walmart gets 50% of its energy from a potentially revolutionary fuel-cell technology.

And Monday, Wal-Mart is expected to announce plans to almost double the number of locations to have solar, with a next-generation solar technology planned for many of them.

In 2005, Wal-Mart set the goal of being 100% reliant on renewable energy. It didn't give a time frame and hasn't said how far it's come. But given Wal-Mart's 8,400 locations worldwide, it's barely made a dent in the goal. Nonetheless, the world's biggest retailer is running real-world tests on green-energy technologies. Because of its heft, it could quickly deploy winning technologies and propel them into the mass market while proving to other companies that the economics work, renewable-energy experts say.

"If these technologies can pass the Wal-Mart hurdle, other people will say, 'We ought to look into it. It's not just a novelty,' " says Gwen Ruta, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Wal-Mart — one of the USA's largest private users of electricity — isn't pursuing renewables just for good PR. It'll turn to green energy, but only if it costs the same as or less than traditional power. So far, more than 90% of Wal-Mart's renewable projects have met that bar, says David Ozment, Wal-Mart's director of energy.

Since 2008, Wal-Mart's solar facilities, now numbering 31 in California and Hawaii, have even cut the retailer's energy costs by $1 million, Ozment says. That's small change for a company with annual revenue of $405 billion. But it's noteworthy because solar is still, on a national basis, more expensive than traditional energy, such as coal.

Some environmental groups have criticized Wal-Mart for not being more green. Advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch also says that Wal-Mart's green efforts divert attention away from the pollution created by the distance that many shoppers drive to get to its stores, which are often on the edges of cities. But other retail and green analysts say Wal-Mart is pursuing renewables with as much pace as possible, given the economics.

"They're trying to figure out how to apply their low-price model to solar, which isn't low-price," says Joel Makower, executive editor of "This is hard stuff."

A big push to go green

Wal-Mart's work on renewables has happened in conjunction with its other major steps to go green. Five years ago, Wal-Mart pledged to eventually send no waste to landfills because everything is re-used, and to sell only products that sustain people and the environment. The company has since opened prototype stores that are 25% more energy-efficient, thanks to such steps as using more skylights and lights that automatically dim. Its U.S. truck fleet has become 60% more efficient, in part because of better route planning. By 2013, Wal-Mart wants its 100,000 suppliers to reduce packaging by 5%.

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