As solar costs plummet, U.S. corporate giants including Apple, Google and Wal-Mart are turning to the sun to power stores, data centers and other facilities.
At a Wal-Mart store in Mountain View, Calif., on Friday, President Obama cited Wal-Mart's commitment to double the number of solar energy projects at its stores, Sam's Clubs and distribution centers nationwide by 2020. Obama announced 300-plus other private and public efforts, including new solar panels on the White House, to boost energy efficiency and renewable power.
Apple, for example, pledged to power all its facilities with green energy. The California-based company said its energy-intensive data centers already use 100% renewable power and so will the 2.8 million square-foot headquarters it's building in Cupertino, which will feature a mammoth rooftop solar array.
Google, which has made huge investments in solar projects, announced a $1 million prize to develop the next generation of power inverters to bring solar to more U.S. homes. Ikea said it will use renewable energy, when feasible, at all its U.S. stores including its new one in Miami, slated to open this summer and become its 40th location with solar panels. Yahoo said it would add a solar installation to its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters by early 2015.
Other companies such as Kohl's, Staples and Whole Foods, have already committed to acquiring 100% of their power from renewable power either through on-site generation or energy credits.
"These companies are expanding their use of solar because it makes sense from both a business and social-responsibility viewpoint," says Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industry Industries Association, an industry group, noting 30 utility-scale projects are under construction. He said the commitments are part of "a solar boom in America that is already taking place."
His group says new photovoltaic capacity jumped 41% last year from 2012, making solar the second-largest source (after natural gas) of new electricity in the nation. U.S. solar power has skyrocketed from 1.2 gigawatts in 2008 to an estimated 13 gigawatts today — enough to power more than 2.2 million American homes.
"The momentum is increasing," says Daniel Urech, Obama's special assistant for energy and climate change, noting prices for solar installations have plunged more than 50% in recent years. He said the efforts of Walmart, as the nation's largest retailer, are "significant."
Wal-Mart announced last year that it would boost its usage of renewable energy more than 600% and its energy efficiency 20% by 2020, compared with 2010. The company says it had 240 onsite solar projects installed at the end of last year.
Obama's visit, however, drew protests from workers and others who say the company is not truly committed to income equality and sustainability. Longtime critic Stacy Mitchell, author of Walmart's Assault on the Climate, says Wal-Mart's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and its use of renewable energy actually fell 24% in the last two years.
Wal-Mart ranks in the second-highest of four tiers for its efforts to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions, according to a scorecard of 613 large publicly traded corporations released April 30 by Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit that promotes corporate sustainability. Only 2% of companies — including Cisco, Hess, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, JPMorgan Chase, Lockheed Martin and Texas Instruments — landed in the top tier, and 14%, like Wal-Mart, placed in the second tier.
"It has strengths and weaknesses," says the report's lead author Andrea Moffat, noting Walmart has made some progress in embracing renewable energy.For protecting workers' rights, though, she says "they're still in the bottom tier."
The Ceres report found that while two-thirds of companies are taking some steps to reduce their carbon pollution, only 35% have set specific dates to reduce emissions, and 37% already have a renewable energy program. Those numbers rose only slightly from its initial analysis in 2012.