Walmart leads nation in commercial solar use

In their recently published second edition of Solar Means Business, the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the non-profit Vote Solar organization look at the top 25 U.S. commercial solar users and chronicle the continued and growing deployment of the leading commercial solar users in the U.S.

Among the top 25 companies, Walmart leads in both overall capacity and the number of installations.

Researchers contacted all Fortune 100 companies as well as a number of additional businesses with known significant solar portfolios to gather data for the report.

In the past year, "U.S. businesses, non-profits and government organizations have blanketed their rooftops and properties with over 1,000 MW of new photovoltaic solar installations," the report says. It adds that as of mid-2013, cumulative commercial deployment totaled 3.38 GW at more than 32,800 facilities throughout the country — an increase of more than 40% over last year.

"From large corporations such as Walmart, Costco, Apple and IKEA to small, local companies, U.S. businesses are making significant investments in solar to cut energy costs. Solar allows businesses of all sizes and in a range of industries to lower their energy expenditures, improve their bottom line and gain a competitive advantage," the report finds.

"For many companies, electricity costs represent the single largest operating expense. The continued fall in solar system prices and the adoption of innovated financing models that can reduce up-front costs allow companies that have deployed solar to dramatically reduce energy expenditures. In a growing number of markets, companies can either generate or purchase solar energy at or below local retail electricity rates, saving businesses money from day one."

The report points out that utility price volatility also presents a challenge to businesses’ long-term budgets.

"Solar allows companies to lock in fixed energy prices for decades. Whether the system is purchased upfront or financed through a power purchase agreement (PPA) or lease, solar offers long-term price visibility and a valuable hedge against rising and volatile conventional electricity rates. In addition, companies are learning that they can offset tax liability using the federal investment tax credit while powering their facilities as well."

The consistent decline of PV system costs has continued to improve the solar value proposition to commercial users, it adds, pointing out that the average price of a completed commercial PV project has dropped by 30% since the beginning of the 2011, making solar more affordable than ever for U.S. businesses. "The dramatic fall in prices is encouraging more and more companies to open their investment portfolios to on-site solar energy systems."

In addition, the study says the increased adoption of solar by major companies "reflects the growth displayed in the overall commercial solar sector over the last year. The 25 companies with the highest total solar capacity as of August 2013 have deployed more than 445 MW at over 950 different facilities, enough to power 73,400 American homes." The figure is significantly higher than a year ago, when the first edition of Solar Means Business showed the top 25 companies had installed just over 300 MW at 730 facilities.

Top 25 U.S. companies by solar capacity and installations

The top 25 companies have installed more than 445 MW of solar PV capacity across the country, up from about 300 MW last year. Walmart led the pack with 89.43 MW, followed by the membership-only warehouse club Costco with 47.06 MW, Kohl’s department store chain (44.72 MW), Apple (40.73 MW) and IKEA with 35.08 MW.

Walmart likewise topped the ranking in terms of installations with 215 solar arrays, followed by drugstore chain Walgreens (156), Kohl’s (140), Costco (78) and department store group Macy’s (44).

Overall, the top 25 companies have installed more than 950 systems, "a clear sign that solar meets a range of energy needs for a variety of different companies throughout the U.S."

While the study stresses that energy demands and load profiles vary significantly by company and by facility, one trend is evident — companies that have installed solar continue to add more.

Summing up its findings, the report says an "investment in solar allows American companies to reduce energy costs, allocate resources to their core business operations, and better plan for the future."