Wal-Mart's $1 Billion Problem

The nation's largest retailer is also its largest private energy user. But a new green-building initiative aims to change that

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, is also the nation’s largest private energy user. Each of the Bentonville, Arkansas–based discount giant’s 2,074 supercenters uses an average of 1.5 million kilowatts per year; combined, that’s enough to power Chile. The 3,800-store chain’s annual power bill tops out at about $1 billion.

Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott aims to change that with an aggressive green building campaign. In 2005 he outlined a corporate plan to cut store energy use by 30 percent and reduce waste by 25 percent over the next three years, investing $500 million a year in sustainable innovations in new construction.

Correspondingly, Wal-Mart opened two 200,000-square-foot stores in Aurora, Colorado, and McKinney, Texas, as test laboratories for these broader applications, and on November 13, the company posted the first year’s data collection.

LED lighting is one technology the company will be deploying more widely, for example. Those lights will replace fluorescent tubes in freezer and display cases, resulting in 50 percent energy savings and longer life expectancy. Roof-mounted solar panels and wind turbines yielded less successful results, however, and require further evaluation before being used on a broad scale. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory will monitor the two stores for two more years to determine which items will be used in future building plans.

Regarding other potential applications, Don Moseley, Wal-Mart’s special projects engineer, says, “There are high hopes for evaporative cooling, waterless urinals, composting of organic materials, and many other concepts, and each are being carefully studied, evaluated, and in some cases incorporated into additional ‘test’ environments in more prototypical stores.” Native landscaping, waterless urinals, and electronic sensor sinks decreased water use by 85 percent at the McKinney facility, for example, although installation at standard-issue stores will likely differ.  

While testing continues, Wal-Mart will begin integrating sustainable components of its experimental stores into new stores during the first part of 2007. It’s also initiating a preference program for its 60,000 suppliers to set their own environmental goals.

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