Wal-Mart's road to 100% renewables - Smart Energy Decisions

Commercial, Distributed Energy Resources, Energy Storage, GHG Emissions, Utilities, Commercial, Distributed Generation, Solar, Sourcing Renewables  -  December 12, 2016 - By Amy Poszywak

Wal-Mart's journey to 100% renewables reinvigorated with energy storage, shifting utility models

Solar panels on Wal-Mart's Covina, Calif., store are pictured in this photo provided by Wal-Mart. 

As Wal-Mart Stores Inc. ventures farther down its somewhat long and winding road to 100% renewable energy, advancements in technologies such as energy storage and in the way it works with its utilities are accelerating its journey.

The world's largest retail established its goal of powering its operations entirely with clean energy — and reducing its overall demand for electricity through energy efficiency  in 2005, alongside a broader new commitment to corporate sustainability, branding itself as one of the earliest companies to do so. While getting there may be taking longer than initially expected, Wal-Mart announced a milestone this year in hitting the 25% mark, and likely sees a clearer picture for the remainder of its journey.

In its most recent sustainability report, Wal-Mart said it  "is committed to expanding the development of onsite and offsite solar power, wind power, fuel cells and other technologies" as it looks to meet its goal of producing or procuring 7 billion kWh of renewable energy by the end of 2020. The U.S. portion of that goal is 2.5 billion kWh, Mark Vanderhelm told an audience at an energy storage conference earlier this year. At the end of 2015, Wal-Mart had more than 470 onsite and offsite projects in operation or under development in 17 states in the U.S. and seven international countries.

"We're looking at this as a net benefit, economically, to Wal-Mart as well, and that's my mandate," Vanderhelm said in October at Energy Storage North America. "Obviously we could do all this by just writing a check, but we're looking at being creative, pulling technologies in, that's why it's so important for us to participate in conferences like this. " 

In the U.S., Wal-Mart is experimenting with a number of different energy storage applications, focused in regions like California where Vanderhelm said where state incentives exist and offsetting costs are the most critical. Wal-Mart announced a series of projects at its California locations this year, and expects to move into New York and Massachusetts next. 

Thus far, Wal-Mart's primary usage for energy storage has been load shifting and peak shaving, Vanderhelm said. Other applications under consideration as Wal-Mart to expand into other markets, however, include frequency regulation; demand response, depending on what programs the local utility has in place; critical load backup power, through a combination of generation units with lithium ion batteries; and pairing with onsite generation for microgrid applications.

Speaking at the event, Vanderhelm called energy storage "that critical puzzle piece that continues to enable the penetration of solar and wind, and can shift us over to a much more sustainable energy supply." Wal-Mart has partnered with SolarCity to install and test energy storage projects co-located with solar power generation at a number of the company's locations in California. 

The technology also supports Wal-Mart's efforts to transform its stores into resources for community restoration from natural disasters. 

"That's something where being able to leverage backup power is really critical for that longer-term vision," Vanderhelm said. "It's the opportunity for us to continue to look at our stores as more independent or resilient, and more secure. It also provides competition, a competitive tension between centralized generation source and local generation sources. I think that competitive tension creates innovation, both in terms of the utility model as well as in terms of the onsite technology, power electronics, the automation of the batteries and so forth." 

As for the utility model, and its ability to function in a way that  helps companies such as Wal-Mart meet their energy and sustainability goals, Vanderhelm said the conversation has started to shift for the better. In the company's sustainability report, Wal-Mart said it has worked with developers and utilities on new project opportunities in regulated and deregulated markets, and applauded the work of trade and advocacy groups, such as the Corporate Renewable Energy Partnership and RE100, who are "striving to remove barriers to renewable energy" at state and federal level as well as internationally. 

"From our perspective, one of the things we are looking to push and innovate is the shifting dialogue around the utility model in terms of directly having access to customers for renewable power," Vanderhelm said in October. "I can tell you, from two years ago to today, the folks that are in those conversations from utilities ... and those conversations across the board, have changed tremendously." 

One example of a success in that area can be found in the agreement Wal-Mart announced in June with Southern Co. subsidiary Alabama Power for the renewable energy credits associated with a new, 72-MW photovoltaic solar facility in the eastern part of Alabama. Vanderhelm said that deal allows Wal-Mart to directly offset its electric bills from the utility without taking on much of the risk associated with the solar development. 

"We'll continue that type of conversation with our other utilities," he said. 

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