Walmart's Zeal for Green Power Meets a Coal-Loving President

(Bloomberg) -- The plan laid out by Walmart Inc. was bold and startling: One of the biggest private electricity users in the U.S. promised to get half its power from solar and wind by 2025. If successful, Walmart would leap over Google to become the world’s top green-energy buyer.

That was Nov. 4, 2016. Days later, Donald Trump was elected president, and soon green energy was under attack while coal was lauded. Taken together, Trump’s proposals could make renewable power more expensive -- raising hurdles for Walmart, a company that progressives love to hate but that has a decade-long commitment to clean energy.

Once praised by former President Barack Obama for its green tilt, Walmart must now forge ahead without an ally in the White House. Few other companies have the size and appetite of Walmart to nudge power markets to be cleaner.

“They can’t really achieve the goals that they want without the right policies in place,” said Nathanael Greene, senior renewable energy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re not seeing the federal government against them. They just can’t count on real support.”

So far, there’s no sign Trump policies have led companies from Amazon.com Inc. to Alphabet Inc.’s Google to pull back on green energy. Corporate purchases of wind and solar have already topped last year’s record. And Walmart, while not mentioning Trump, said in a statement last week that its “sustainability efforts are going to continue as planned.”

“This work is embedded in our business and we think it’s important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” spokesman Micah Ragland said.

Walmart's Zeal for Green Power Meets a Coal-Loving President

Walmart embarked on a green push under Chairman Rob Walton (son of founder Sam Walton) and former Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott as early as 2005. A lot of people scoffed at its intentions, as the company was under attack for its labor practices and for hurting small businesses. And even inside Walmart, old-timers groused that the green crusade was a costly distraction.

But much of that criticism faded once Walmart became one of the earliest companies to buy clean energy -- and showed it can save money. Rob Walton’s advocacy of renewables remains strong. Last year, he co-authored a paper criticizing Republicans for challenging climate science. And Walmart said it was “disappointed” following Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.

Walmart has now become a huge consumer of green power, getting about 28 percent of its electricity from renewables. It’s the eighth largest corporate buyer of wind and solar power worldwide since 2008, according Bloomberg NEF.

Walmart's Zeal for Green Power Meets a Coal-Loving President

Walmart’s pledge to almost double green usage, unveiled by current CEO Doug McMillon, means using 15.7 billion kilowatt hours of wind and solar energy in 2025, according to BNEF. That would exceed the levels set by 140 companies that have also committed to switching to green power. And for comparison, that extra power would be about the same amount consumed by the entire nation of Turkmenistan (pop: 5.4 million) in 2015.

The campaign comes as the cost of wind and solar is plummeting. So Walmart’s efforts aren’t all altruistic, of course. It won’t discuss its energy costs or how much it saves, but notes that in many places renewable energy is cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels.

Amazon for example, saved $1.4 million in the last year from one wind power project, reaping the benefits after power prices spiked in January during the cold spell in the eastern U.S., according to BNEF.

“We look at what we otherwise would be paying to the utility,” said Mark Vanderhelm, Walmart’s vice president for energy. Company green energy targets are “definitely doable, but it does require some diligence.”

Depress Prices

The biggest hurdle to Walmart’s goal may be a June 1 directive by Trump for the U.S. Energy Department to stem the closure of struggling coal and nuclear plants. Any subsidies enacted for those generators would probably depress wholesale power prices, which in turn could make solar and wind less economical, according to Stephen Munro, an analyst at BNEF.

“Policy uncertainty can certainly stall corporate procurement of renewables,” said BNEF’s Kyle Harrison. But he added that it remains unclear how any subsidies for coal and nuclear power would be structured.

The president has also imposed import duties on solar technology and rescinded an Obama policy to promote renewable power. Given those developments, a lot of big buyers of electric power are taking a fresh look at their targets, Munro said.

“To the extent that the U.S. government minimizes or eliminates policy support for clean energy, we believe it has the risk of depressing clean energy economics over the long run,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.