WalMart's mixed record on solar and renewable energy


The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has issued a new report which claims that WalMart's environmental initiatives are a “tool for furthering the company's growth and dominance”, while WalMart's owners support anti-renewable energy political causes.

The report also looks at First Solar's support for utility attempts to slow the progress of rooftop solar by imposing fees on net metered systems. The Walton Family holds roughly 30% of First Solar's share capital, and WalMart has strong ties to company management.

ILSR found that since 2010, the Walton Family has donated US$4.5 million to 22 organizations who have led and/or initiated attempts to roll back renewable portfolio standards, as well as promoting denial of Climate Change. These include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity and American Enterprise Institute.

ALEC is not listed as a grantee on any of the Walton Family's annual reports, but are listed in ALEC's national conference in 2011 in a role associated with a donation level of at least US$50,000. The Walton Family Foundation publicly disassociated itself with ALEC in 2012 over its support of “Stand Your Ground” legislation.

However, the Waltons also donated $800,000 to the vocally anti-renewable American Enterprise Institute, as well as providing $575,000 in grants to the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity during this time. All of this is in sharp contrast to the company's Environmental Sustainability initiatives, including its pledge to move to 100% renewable energy.

WalMart's solar record

WalMart is the largest corporate user of solar in the United States, with 215 PV plants totaling 89 MW deployed in 2013. However, it is also the largest retailer globally, and ILSR notes that due to the company's massive scale it currently only gets 3% of its electricity from its wind and solar plants.

The second part of the report deals with PV manufacturer and developer First Solar, which has strong ties to the Walton Family. Like WalMart, First Solar has used a business approach of emphasizing cost reduction through the largest possible economies of scale and offshore manufacturing, which has helped make the company the world's largest thin-film PV maker.

Rooftop policy

First Solar has also been unusual in the solar industry in that it has supported policy changes that negatively impact deployment of rooftop PV. Due to a lower efficiency but competitive cost compared to crystalline silicon PV, First Solar's modules are used in some of the world's largest utility-scale PV projects, but not typically in distributed generation systems.

In a September 2013 filing with the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), First Solar argued that “the total cost of rooftop PV on the utility system has become much higher than could have been forseen, placing an unanticipated burden on utilities and ratepayers,” and calling for a review of net metering to proceed.

The result of the ACC's action was a new fee imposed on PV system owners participating in net metering, as proposed by utility Arizona Public Service (APS). This fee has severely impacted the rooftop PV market in Arizona.

Three months earlier CEO James Hughes penned an op-ed in the Arizona Republic that praised APS' role in deploying solar, and described net metered systems as benefiting from a “cross-subsidy” funded by utility customers.

This is in contrast to a number of reports which have found that the value rooftop solar provides to the grid is greater than its cost to ratepayers. Hughes states that First Solar merely wants “the greatest impact in terms of carbon mitigation for every dollar spent”, however others in the solar industry have taken issue with the company's approach.

“No solar company has publicly advocated against solar until First Solar,” noted Sunrun VP Bryan Miller, who serves as president of The Alliance for Solar Choice.

WalMart did not respond to pv magazine requests for comment by press time, and First Solar declined to offer additional comments.

ILSR Senior Researcher Stacy Mitchell says that while support for organizations that oppose renewable energy is hardly limited to the Waltons, what is notable is the difference between the image that the Walton Family is trying to cultivate, and their actions.

“I think the Waltons stand out in part because they have made a very public embrace of environmentalism,” notes Mitchell. “With regard to the family itself, but also in regard to its flagship enterprise. WalMart has said since 2005 that they are going to be a leader in sustainability. And the family has as well, in lock-step.”

“The question becomes, if you say you are an environmentalist, how is that you support organizations that block action on Global Warming?”

The report is available on the ILSR website.

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