Solar power and keg stands have one thing in common: Wal-Mart wants to profit from them.
In the race for commercial solar power, Wal-Mart is killing it. The company now has almost twice as much capacity as second-place Costco. A better comparison: Wal-Mart is converting more sun into energy than 38 U.S. states.
In the beer department, Wal-Mart recently decided alcohol was good business and vowed to double sales by 2016. The result: 500 reps from the alcohol industry converged on the Sam’s Club auditorium in Bentonville, Arkansas, for an “adult beverages summit” focused on Wal-Mart. “It’s even selling it in garden centers,” Bloomberg News’s Renee Dudley wrote in August.
With solar, will Wal-Mart have the same industry-focusing presence its had with booze? If small business is the heart of the U.S. economy, Wal-Mart is the gluteus maximus -- the power muscle. The company redefines global supply chains and crunches cost reductions in just about every area it touches. More than 80 publicly traded companies rely on Wal-Mart for 10 percent or more of their annual revenue, according to Bloomberg data.
“When we find something that works -- like solar -- we go big with it,” the company’s website proclaims.
When companies tout their solar street cred, it's generally not because they're actually plugging panels in themselves. Most of Wal-Mart's projects are done through what are called power-purchase agreements, where third-party developers install, own and operate the systems on Wal-Mart rooftops. Wal-Mart simply locks in cheap long-term rates to buy back the electricity and take the green credit.
After a 40 percent surge in installations through the second quarter, Wal-Mart now draws on 89 megawatts of capacity, according to a report last week by the Solar Energy Industries Association. That’s roughly enough to power 22,250 U.S. homes.
Even Wal-Mart has a lot more room to grow. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, green power accounts for just 4 percent of the company’s electricity use. IKEA, the world’s biggest home-furnishings retailer, is taking solar a step further. The Swedish company plans to begin selling solar-panel systems in its U.K. stores next year, with a standard 3.36-kilowatt system costing $9,200.
For companies that took a look at solar a few years ago and passed, it may be time to look again. Prices of panels have fallen 60 percent just since 2011, and the average price of an installed solar project has dropped 30 percent, according to industry data.
It’s still early days for solar. Wal-Mart produces more solar energy today than the entire country did in 1987, when Starship released the hit single, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” I’m not sure what exactly that says about Wal-Mart or the U.S. or 1980s pop music -- apart from showing that the landscape today is positively futuristic by comparison.
Buying solar and selling beer are two very different businesses. But when giants like Wal-Mart and Costco throw their weight into either, you can bet on a cheap buzz. I’ll drink to that.
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