Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wal-Mart Exploring Installation of Solar Panels on Some Stores

I've often noted that I'm impressed by Wal-Mart's recent eco-friendly moves because of the specified goals and timetables attached to them. According to Joel Makower, the company is taking the first steps towards fulfilling its long-term objective of being "...supplied 100 percent by renewable energy": it's submitted a "request for proposals" (RFP) for solar power generating systems for some stores in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New Jersey. Joel notes:
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. ...

The goals of this project, as stated in the RFP, are somewhat more modest:

  • the establishment of a relationship "with one or more solar photovoltaic developers that facilitates the cost effective development of solar photovoltaic systems at a predetermined number" of Wal-Mart sites, and
  • securing alternative sources of energy "at competitive prices and in a form that is replicable among multiple sites and multiple building formats."
Let me emphasize again: the company has taken its first step. At this point, nothing is guaranteed to come from this RFP. Still, the company is looking at all of its options for powering some stores by solar power, including system purchase, a "purchase power agreement," or a "lease to own" arrangement, and the potential best outcomes of this move are kind of staggering:
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.
Furthermore, Joel calls the early move "significant, and historic," because Wal-Mart is looking well beyond commitments made so far by other companies. We can rest assured that even at this early stage of the game, the company's competitors are watching this. I'd imagine that its suppliers (or those that want to supply the world's largest retailer) are also looking hard at Wal-Mart's consideration of a solar future. In other words, the company adopting solar technology would create a mini-boom in the market; the ripple effect, though, could be massive. Just as manufacturers of toys, kitchen appliances and grocery items constantly tweak their offerings to meet Bentonville's demands, whether actual or perceived, I'll bet some folks in the solar industry, even those who didn't receive the request, are scrambling...

Photo credit: Photographer Byron Stafford and NREL/DOE

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