Walmart continues to get 40 percent of its power from coal, an amount equal to 0.5 percent of the U.S.’ total coal consumption, according to a new report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR).
This, despite Walmart’s stated commitment to maximizing green energy production.
“We don’t typically think of Walmart when we think about dirty energy,” said Stacy Mitchell, ILSR co-director. “But we should.”
Using data submitted annually by Walmart itself as well as an EPA database, ILSR calculated that Walmart’s U.S. operations now burn through 4.2 million tons of coal per year. If the company were a state, that volume would make Walmart America’s 16th-largest coal user, burning through an amount equivalent to the combined coal consumption of New York and California.
Mitchell said that although ILSR did not track Walmart’s coal use over time, the data suggest the company’s reliance on fossil fuels in the U.S. has been little-changed since 2005, when then-CEO Lee Scott set a goal of attaining 100 percent renewable power for Walmart’s global operations by 2020. With five years left, they’re just a third of the way there. In the U.S., renewable energy comprises just 14 percent of Walmart’s U.S. power consumption. Globally, renewables take up 24 percent of its energy mix. The ILSR report only examined U.S. energy.
“They have done very little in the years since to change their own power generation mix,” Mitchell said.
In a statement to Fusion, Walmart said they remain committed to renewable energy use, pointing out they will install 400 new solar projects over the next four years, though they did not state how much this would boost renewables’ share of their power supply.
“We work state-by-state in the U.S., and region-by-region around the world to make renewable energy work financially and sustainably, as part of our commitment to everyday low cost,” the company said.
Other major retailers have been able to follow through on their green energy promises. Kohl’s, Staples, and REI now each purchase enough renewable production credits to offset 100 percent of their fossil fuel consumption. And many chains are well ahead of Walmart in terms of on-site solar energy generation.
ILSR’s data show Walmart has been content to simply use the most abundant energy supply in a store’s area as its main power source. Seventy-seven percent of Walmart’s renewable consumption comes in areas where most of the local grid already comprises renewable power or is already more costly, like California and Texas. Just 6 percent of Walmart’s renewable consumption comes in areas where coal is the prevailing energy source, according to ILSR.
“Walmart only buys renewable power if it can pay less for that power than it would for just the standard electricity on the grid,” Mitchell said. “In California, commercial electricity rates are really high, so they buy and contract for green power. But in a place like Missouri, where electricity is really cheap because it’s mostly coal, they don’t have any renewables.”
Walmart has acknowledged that it only invests in renewables when it is convenient to do so. In an interview with Bloomberg in 2012, Walmart’s director of energy admitted that they choose their renewables projects based on whether they are cheaper than other forms of electricity available in a facility’s region.
“The only projects that we were doing are the ones that economically make sense at the store level,” Marty Gilbert said. “Wall Street was watching to see if this was a public relations game and we would be passing the cost on to our customers. It’s not done on a portfolio basis, it’s every store analyzed individually.
Walmart has also admitted that it will be difficult to meet its goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain by the end of 2015, as it’s only about half-way toward that target. Last year its global emissions climbed 0.37 percent.
Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions and a former sustainability consultant for Walmart, said the company is caught in a bind between long-term thinking and short-term, investor-led concerns. Walmart’s sales growth has slowed in recent years.
But she pointed out that companies like Costco who have seen sales surge when they announce, and commit to, worker-and environment-friendly policies. Walmart itself saw a bump in market share when it first announced its sustainability commitment.
“When you dance to the tune of Wall Street, then every good initiative goes out the window,” she said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.