Powering Up: Walmart plans to install more solar panels and moves closer to its goal

Walmart recently announced plans to install solar panels on all remaining eligible Walmart store locations in California, bringing the grand total to more than 130 stores by the end of 2013.  Each installation will provide approximately 20 to 30 percent of that location’s needed electricity and will produce 600,000 kilowatt hours of clean, renewable electricity annually.

At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we’re excited to see Walmart take this step toward harvesting the business and environmental opportunities of solar technology while continuing to move toward its goal to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy.

Solar Power is Coming of Age…

A report released this month by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory details the dramatically changing landscape and growing opportunities for solar power.  Specifically, it reports that the average net installed cost of photovoltaic systems on commercial property fell by 22 percent in 2010 alone.  Additionally, the report states that financial incentives have played a significant role in driving the solar industry in the United States.  In fact, the data demonstrates that as the cost of solar installations continues to decline, so too does the value of available incentives.

While we all have seen the substantial coverage of solar manufacturer Solyndra declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shuttering its manufacturing facility, what many have not acknowledged is that Solyndra’s failure is in some part due to increased price pressure from government-supported competitors in China.  The controversy surrounding Solyndra’s loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy has distracted us from having a conversation about the continued need for policy makers in the U.S. to support renewable energy like solar in ways that allow it to be more competitive with dirty energy.

EDF and Walmart are working together because we both see the market potential for solar.  Walmart wants cost-competitive, reliable clean power for its stores.  And EDF wants to leverage Walmart's ability to bring renewables to the mainstream faster than they otherwise would.

… But We're Not There Yet

The decrease in incentives signals that policy makers believe solar power is on its way to becoming more cost competitive with traditional energy sources, and so less support is necessary.  While on a macro level that premise makes sense, it’s important to preserve and adjust renewable energy incentives in a measured and calculated manner that allow markets and competition to flourish.  The energy Walmart will purchase in California is cost-competitive with conventional electricity rates because SolarCity, the vendor who will source, install, own and maintain the solar panels, will receive incentives.

Right now, Walmart and other companies pursuing solar technology cannot do it alone. Renewable energy like solar will not flourish and be competitive with dirty, traditional forms of energy if utilities, states and the federal government step away from their vital role of enabling our clean and self-reliant energy future.

Walmart's showing leadership.  It's time for our country to do so, too.