Recent campaign stops by Mitt Romney and President Obama could not provide a more stark contrast of energy policies. Romney promises coal miners that he’s in favor of energy from "below the ground," albeit preferring domestic sources of all fossil fuels. The President has repeatedly focused on "above the ground" solutions, such as wind and solar power, along with a money-saving emphasis on energy efficiency, but both men fail to put their energy plans for America in the context of one key ingredient—a goal. If neither potential American leader gets it right, is there any country that does?
Well, Walmart may not be a country, but its annual revenues would put it in the top 20 nations in terms of GDP. Its two million associates and 150 million shoppers would put it in the top 10 among countries by population. Moreover, Walmart has a culture of doing more with less. So does this "nation" have an energy policy worth emulating?
Earlier this month, Walmart unveiled a 20-story-tall wind turbine in Red Bluff, California, to provide energy to its distribution center there. It has nearly 200 other renewable energy projects already in operation, including a 90-megawatt wind farm in West Texas that powers portions of more than 300 Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs; two dozen fuel cells and 100 solar installations supplying energy to stores in California; 348 stores in Mexico partially supplied by wind power and 14 more in Northern Ireland supplied entirely by wind power.
But two things in particular make Walmart’s efforts something to emulate. First, the company has a stated goal of becoming powered 100% by renewable energy, putting their efforts in an important context for stimulating innovation and measuring progress. Of equal importance is the fact that all of this clean energy work is done because it costs the company the same or less than business as usual, especially when combined with Walmart’s aggressive energy-efficiency measures.
Nor is Walmart alone with this approach. Ikea; Denmark; Scotland; and Austin, Texas, are among the eclectic mix of companies, countries, and cities that have also pledged to go 100% renewable in the foreseeable future, doing so because it makes both environmental and economic sense. Energy gurus like Indian Nobel laureate Dr. R.K. Pachauri have warned for years that the kind of blackout experienced recently in his country could be avoided with more distributed energy from clean sources—exactly as Walmart is demonstrating.
As millions more consumers enter the middle class each year around the world, demand for the products that Walmart sells will escalate, especially energy guzzlers like large TVs and air conditioners. The company’s energy policies will not only ensure its continued profitability but will help lower the costs of clean energy technology to make sure that citizens in the land of Walmart have enough energy to power their lives and bottom lines, too.
As the noise of the political season grows louder this fall, let’s ask the candidates to explain not just whether they prefer energy from above or below the ground, but how they see a planet of seven billion people being able to sustain the demand for those sources. Or, in this age of sound bites and reducing complicated policies to competing slogans, perhaps it would be easier and more effective for the country to simply ask them to adopt the Walmart energy policy. If they do, the candidates will soon discover there is no "D" or "R" next to policies that save money and a planet at the same time.