Big Chains Go Solar; Denmark's Energy Independence; Gore’s Big Switch

An article in today’s New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom discusses the growing trend of the nation’s largest retailers putting solar panels on their roof in order to appear green, but mainly to save on their electricity bills.

In recent months, chains including Wal-Mart Stores, Kohl’s, Safeway and Whole Foods Market have installed solar panels on roofs of their stores to generate electricity on a large scale. One reason they are racing is to beat a Dec. 31 deadline to gain tax advantages for these projects.

So far, most chains have outfitted fewer than 10 percent of their stores. Over the long run, assuming Congress renews a favorable tax provision and more states offer incentives, the chains promise a solar construction program that would ultimately put panels atop almost every big store in the country.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, has 17 stores and distribution centers with solar panels in operation or in the testing phase. It plans to add them soon to five more stores. People at the chain are considering a far larger program that would put panels and other renewable technologies at hundreds of stores.

"It’s going to be the Wal-Marts of the world that will buy these things over acres and make a difference," said Roger G. Little, chairman and chief executive of the Spire Corporation, a Boston company that provides solar equipment.

Analysts are not sure how much power the rooftop projects could ultimately produce, but they say it could be enough to help shave total electricity demand. In many communities, stores are among the biggest energy users. Depending on location and weather, the solar panels generate 10 to 40 percent of the power a store needs.

If Wal-Mart eventually covered the roofs of all its Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart locations with solar panels, figures from the company show that the resulting solar acreage would roughly equal the size of Manhattan, an island of 23 square miles.

As the story notes, these retailers are working to beat the Dec. 31 expiration of the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which, if it expires, will devastate the solar industry. These retailers, along with energy experts and economists, have stressed that long term financial stability is crucial to ensuring investment in renewable technology. These stores are to be congratulated for understanding both the advantage offered to their bottom lines by investing in this technology and the positive impacts of helping achieve scale in the solar market.

Thomas Friedman
over the weekend also discussed Denmark’s energy policy – one of complete energy independence, and the lessons Americans can learn from it.

"I have observed that in all other countries, including in America, people are complaining about how prices of [gasoline] are going up,” Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told me. “The cure is not to reduce the price, but, on the contrary, to raise it even higher to break our addiction to oil. We are going to introduce a new tax reform in the direction of even higher taxation on energy and the revenue generated on that will be used to cut taxes on personal income — so we will improve incentives to work and improve incentives to save energy and develop renewable energy."

Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.

Why should you care?

"We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months," said Engel, "and not one out of the U.S."

Finally, Al Gore’s We Campaign is out with a new ad that will air tonight during the Olympics:

The broad consensus that has developed around renewable energy in general and solar in particular, from Al Gore to Wal-Mart, demonstrates that America is ready for action and leadership. Creating a low-carbon economy needs to be the (not "a") top priority of the next President’s administration, and Congress should be taking steps in that direction when it returns from recess. Continuing our energy policy – one that allows for, at the moment, conflict over South Ossetia, to affect our energy needs – when better options exist, is patently absurd.

For more on the development of solar power as a major economic opportunity for America, be sure to read NDN Green Project Director Michael Moynihan’s new paper entitled Solar Energy, the Case for Action.