“This is a market-making type of transaction,” prophesied SunPower CEO Tom Werner, after Apple recently awarded $850 million to First Solar for a 130-megawatt PV plant to green its world-beating empire. Let us pray, said the solarizers.
We’ll pray with data, of course, in this handy report card on corporate solar progress so far. Apple’s blockbuster deal with First Solar certainly sets both apart as a PV paragons although, as CEO Tim Cook will probably tell you himself, it was something of a renewable energy no-brainer. In the final analysis, the question is never really whether or not other titans will follow Apple’s example, but when? Are these corporations truly committing to solar, or are they focused on stalling innovations like net metering and distributed generation? Queries abound.
“Given the profile of Apple and their reputation, we think it’s going to stimulate a lot of other companies that may not have programs as active as Apple’s to ask questions,” First Solar CEO Jim Hughes said after the deal was announced. “Is there a smarter, better way we can procure our energy?”
Citizens spending hard-earned dollars to go solar also want to know who’s on their side. The goods news is that all of the following corporations are, after a fashion, throwing their political and economic clout into solar energy. The bad news is that some of them, even the best, have much more act to clean up.
Recreational Equipment Inc.
Grade: B Perhaps Earth’s best-known outdoor retailer, REI is aiming to be climate neutral by 2020 and has solarized 28 locations across eight states. Nationally, 21 percent of its facilities are solar powered, which puts it in the top five of commercial solar users, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Also, its former president and CEO, Sally Jewell, is now serving as the Secretary of Interior, which last year approved two First Solar farms with 550 megawatts of solar capacity on public land along the California-Nevada border. “Our clean energy future is bright,” Jewell promised in a statement. If you add Jewell’s solar bonafides from DOI to REI, then factor in that she once worked in the oil and banking industries, you’re left with a greening example of public-private partnership.
Duke Energy Like other power players in the energy market, Duke is trying to green its operations, lately paying $225 million to accelerate REC Solar‘s national deployment. Add that to the 150 megawatts of solar that Duke Energy company currently owns, plus the $500 million it recently shelled out to solarize North Carolina (where a frustrated Apple once had to build its own solar farms), and Duke’s negotiations on net metering and distributed generation in South Carolina feel less underwhelming — not to mention Duke’s own stance against net metering in NC. Of course, once you factor in Duke’s CO2 emissions, reportedly the second-largest in America, it’s hard to give it a passing grade.
Citigroup One should never sneeze when the third largest bank on Earth creates a $100 billion climate change fund. Although there is some mystery as to just how much of that will be routed towards photovoltaics, Citigroup has already financed SunPower’s 579-megawatt Solar Star farm for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, whose energy division accounts for 7 percent of America’s solar generation capacity. (Nor should it be ignored that Buffett dumped a $3.74 billion stake in Exxon.) Both Berkshire and Citigroup’s massive green maneuvers give hope that more banks and institutional investors will follow the example and exponentially solarize, but suspicious $50 billion tax write-offs aren’t making it happen any faster. Until then…
Costco According to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Solar Means Business 2014 report on top U.S. commercial solar users, Costco has installed nearly 50 megawatts of solar capacity, which is neck-in-neck with fellow retailer Kohl’s, but half as much as the clear leader, Walmart — which, like Costco, has also begun selling panels in its expansive stores. Unlike the flattening Kohl’s, however, Costco is only growing stronger, bringing solar power to the people in ways the retail market cannot. Same goes for other top solar users on SEIA’s list, such as Staples (failing) and Macy’s under siege), who may not have a future in a downsized shopping market. The silver lining? When the other stores fail, their next buyers will already have solar panels.
General Motors If you sift through SEIA’s Solar Means Business 2014 report, you find that GM has solarized 43 percent of its facilities. second only to the runaway leader IKEA. It happily boasts of being “fueled by the sun” online, empowered by 46 megawatts and once the record-holder for world’s largest rooftop solar installation (until 2012). But when one asks GM what it has done lately for solarizers, one doesn’t get much response. There are exciting evolutions on other renewable energy fronts, like GM’s electrifying Bolt, which could bring much-needed EVs to a middle class that wants to green its commute but can’t afford a Tesla. But after Apple’s “market-making” move, promising to generate 125 megawatts by 2025 isn’t going to win GM much solar street cred, not after a $49.5 billion bailout from the people.
General Electric: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy,” GE’s Solar 101 site quotes Thomas Edison on its shiny header, while claiming on its footer that the energy multinational “has been involved in solar energy research for decade.” GE’s deep pockets also bankrolled half of First Solar’s Desert Sunlight solar farm, which at last check was the largest solar plant in the world. But while GE has reportedly committed approximately $10 billion to renewable energy projects, less than $2 billion of that haul has gone to solar. That’s cheap compared to the $33.9 billion GE made from 2008-2013, for which it was given an overall tax refund of $2.9 billion by the IRS. GE and its billions may operate in “every aspect of the solar energy value chain,” as it explains in Solar 101, but until its commitment to solarization is in sync with its earnings and influence, it needs a greener makeover if it wants to be considered a solar role model.
IKEA: It has installed over 700,000 solar panels on its facilities, and now it even sells them in stores — at a discount for some. Missouri’s largest rooftop solar array is coming to an IKEA store; indeed, 90 percent of the Swedish company’s stores have panels on them. IKEA also plans to be energy-independent by 2020, no slouch, and is internationally deploying its low-cost, in-store solar offers to other countries. When it comes to what’s left of the lifestyle market, IKEA is light years ahead of its competitors. If we could only get them to stop cutting down trees…
WalMart: One of the largest stockholders of First Solar, the Walton family is a corporate solar champ, of sorts. It has legendarily installed more solar capacity than its American competitors, 100 megawatts and rising. Walmart has also poured hundreds of millions into solarization with the help of SolarCity. But once you factor in Walmart’s increasing emissions, plus the millions it’s backstopping for anti-solar advocates like the ALEC and AEI, it’s championship status as a solar role model is thrown into relief. Detach that funding, however, and you have a different company, especially once deeper environmental regulations begin kicking in. The utility-scale solar farms favored by corporations like Walmart, and First Solar, have as much a place in our globally warmed future as residential solar’s distributed generation and net metering. Look down the road a few years and you’ll likely find the Walton family significantly boosting its already impressive solar capacity, while giving up on the anti-solar antics.
Apple: Not to be outdone by Wamart’s record solar capacity, Apple recently sealed a $850 million deal for what CEO Tim Cook called its “biggest, boldest and most ambitious project ever,” a power-purchase agreement for First Solar’s 150 megawatt California Flats project. First Solar promised the deal would significantly increase the entire state of California’s solar power supply, but that’s somewhat underselling Apple’s role. With billions to burn, Apple has given its new client First Solar, and in turn their major stockholder Walmart, enough work and money to make them temporary solar heroes, and perhaps even distract them from petty squabbles with the rooftop solar sector. As explained above, Walmart’s millions in funding for anti-solar advocates like ALEC and AEI is a loss leader. The astounding sum of Apple’s “biggest” project, so far but probably not for long, puts the lie to argument that rooftop solar is a threat to the business of utilities or their backers.
Google: The only future industry multinational that can (so far) match up to Apple, Google has lately cast its hundreds of millions into rooftop solar. It’s following the smart money predicting that residential solar financing could be a $6 billion dollar market by 2016, as both homeowners and businesses, such as the ones mentioned on this list, solarize everything in sight. Google’s recent money drop for SolarCity’s residential buildout totals $300 million, but its rich support for rooftop solar in the shadow of utility attacks is worth much more. That funding and influence has led to the first joint yieldco from First Solar and SunPower, which is a detente of sorts between two titans at the utility and residential scale. It’s doubtlessly the first of many to come as both the utility and residential sectors unite to solarize America, as fossil fuels are forcibly decoupled from the nation’s economy and infrastructure. Until they do, Google is the corporate solar role model to beat.
These are just 10 of the big company commitments to solar that have made headlines recently. Regardless of how big and fast — or how small and slow — companies are doing on going solar, the fact that so many of them are being vocal about solar in the first place is yet another sign that solar is the future.
Photos courtesy of Apple, REI, and IKEA.