Schwarzenegger Tours Solar Panel Roof Of A Sam's Club

Climate hawks threw a punch at Walmart early Thursday afternoon – and before the day was over, the global retail behemoth had jabbed back. Sort of. Or so it might have appeared.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance, with enviro heavyweights like founder Bill McKibben and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune at its side, first released a report [PDF] charging that Walmart has done practically nothing to trim its hearty appetite for coal, despite its oft-stated “aspiration” to one day rely 100 percent on renewable energy.

Then at 5:15 p.m. EST, Walmart put out a news release. The release didn’t mention the ILSR report but instead said Walmart would “install up to 400 new solar projects at facilities across the nation over the next four years.” That’s a big addition – Walmart put its current number of solar installations at “approximately 260.”

Walmart said that after an RFP process, it had selected SolarCity and SunEdison to do the installations.

“The installations will vary in size, commensurate with the respective store or facility,” Walmart said. “It is expected that smaller systems will provide 10 to 20 percent of the facility’s electricity requirements and larger systems will provide 20 to 30 percent of the power needed by the facility.”

The Walmart initiative, with the named installers, isn’t the kind of thing that could have been baked from scratch in a matter of hours – but was the announcement rushed out the door late in the day in response to the ILSR report?

Nope, said Tara Greco, director of Sustainability Communications for Walmart. “It was a complete coincidence,” Greco said in an interview, the timing a result of a busy news queue for the company as the big holiday shopping season unfolds.

In the ILSR report, Walmart was rapped for its “staggering” consumption of coal – 4.2 million tons, making up 40 percent of its energy mix, by the group’s calculations. ILSR called that “a remarkable fact for a company that has touted its environmental responsibility for years.” Meanwhile, the report said Walmart used a “meager volume” of onsite or directly purchased renewable energy – just 3 percent of the electricity it uses in the U.S., down from four percent two years ago.

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Further, said Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at ILSR and co-author of the report, Walmart was compounding its greenwashing by supporting coal-friendly political candidates.

“If Walmart hasn’t done anything to change its own reliance on coal, is it doing anything to move the nation as a whole away from coal? The answer here is, ‘No,’” Mitchell said in a presentation to media. “Even worse, Walmart is using its influence, we found, for just the opposite effect…. Over half the Congressional candidates that Walmart and its majority owners, the Walton family, supported in the last election cycle vote with fossil fuel interests 100 percent of the time.”

In a publicly available paper, Walmart calls itself a “global renewable energy leader” and “the largest onsite renewables user in the U.S.” In 2005, the company said it would work toward being supplied by 100 percent clean energy, although there’s no deadline for that goal.

Walmart said earlier this year that it was at 24.2 percent renewables globally. That number isn’t directly comparable to ILSR’s 3 percent figure, however, because, as we reported in June, Walmart includes not only its onsite production and its direct green power purchases, but also adds in the renewable energy component of the utilities that supply its power. So the company gets a big boost in places like Brazil, where more than 70 percent of country’s grid electricity comes from hydropower, and in Canada, where 60 percent of the electricity comes from hydro.

Walmart does generate more green power at its stores and warehouses than any other member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership – 204,174,303 kilowatt-hours annually, according to the latest EPA data. It also purchases 446,542,400 kWh of green power. And a Solar Energy Industries Association report last month put Walmart at the top of its lists for number of installations (254) and onsite solar capacity (105.1 megawatts).

ILSR argued Walmart ought to be doing way more, since it has so many big roofs to work with – more than 4,800 stores in the U.S., and 146 distribution centers. Ikea, with just 40 stores in the U.S., has 37 percent the installed solar capacity of Walmart, thanks to installations at more than 90 percent of its stores.

Asked about that proportion gap, Greco said that Walmart’s high standing in ranking done by “objective, third-party organizations” – EPA, SEIA and the Carbon Disclosure Project – showed the legitimacy of the company’s green efforts.

Meanwhile, Walmart’s critics continue to look for more from the company – even after the announcement of 400 additional installations.

“After growing calls from leading environmental groups for Walmart to commit to the sustainability promises it made nine years ago, the company’s announcement to install more solar is an indication that it recognizes that it must do more,” ILSR’s Mitchell said. “We’ve heard similar promises from Walmart before, though, and this is still quite small relative to the company’s size and the progress other retailers have made in moving to clean power. The question now is whether deeper commitments from Walmart to change the most destructive aspects of its business model will follow.”