According to a recent report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), the Walton family, majority owners of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., is secretly waging a war on distributed energy through efforts to concentrate solar projects in the hands of large corporations and investors.
Due to the family’s support for anti-renewable energy groups, the report finds the Waltons have become “a threat to our clean energy future.”
The real picture is far more complicated.
The rapid expansion of rooftop solar is starting to threaten the profits of utilities. As a result, several states are seeing battles over their state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and net metering laws, which require utilities to compensate solar owners for excess electricity they feed back into the grid. Utilities argue that net-metered customers don’t pay their fair share of fixed costs to use the transmission and distribution system.
The Koch brothers’ role in campaigns against state renewable energy programs and distributed solar incentives has been chronicled in the media, but the Waltons’ involvement has been largely overlooked, according to the ILSR report.
Since 2010, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) has donated $4.5 million to more than twenty organizations leading federal and state campaigns against renewable energy and climate change, including Americans for Prosperity, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
WFF is also a 30 percent shareholder in First Solar, the utility-scale solar project developer that joined with APS to oppose net metering in Arizona. First Solar is now getting involved in a fight over rooftop solar in Nevada and tracking the emerging regulatory debate in California, according to the report.
“It’s not as though there’s no room for renewable power in the vision of the future that the Waltons have. But they have a vision of the future in which the economy is controlled by a small number of corporations and wealthy investors," said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of ILSR, in an interview.
“Our economy has really been taken over by a Wal-Mart economic model over the last 25 years or so, where we have seen shrinking numbers of small businesses and ownership opportunities for ordinary people, where we’ve seen the middle class shrinking, growing numbers of working poor and jobs shifted overseas. [...] Wal-Mart is a central figure in that," she added. “It’s quite striking to me that one of the few areas we can point to where there’s a counter-trend going on is rooftop solar, and low and behold, the Walton family is pushing an agenda that says solar is good only as long as we own it."
The report notes that none of the Walton family’s grants were earmarked for running anti-renewable energy campaigns, however. Some are listed as “special initiatives,” and others are designated for “educational reform.”
That directly contradicts the conclusion of the report, and seemingly shows that the Waltons are not actively supporting efforts to undermine renewable energy deployment.
“This report ignores significant investments by the Walton Family Foundation with leading environmental groups,” Daphne Moore, spokesperson for WFF, wrote in an email to Greentech Media. “Instead, the author [of the ILSR report] chooses to focus on a handful of grants -- none of which were designated for renewable-energy-related issues.”
But whether or not Walton dollars were intended to support anti-solar initiatives, Mitchell said, the overall effect is that they bolster the organizations leading them.
“The larger point is that these dollars, even though they’re earmarked for other things, they expand the capacity of these organizations and make them more formidable forces when it comes to attacking renewable energy,” she said.
Microsoft, Google and Facebook recently withdrew their support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) over the group’s skepticism on climate change. Yahoo, eBay and now the Waltons are under increasing pressure to drop support for ALEC and other groups working against the adoption of clean energy.
The Waltons' ties to ALEC are unclear at best, however. The report makes reference to WFF's one-time "Chairman" level sponsorship of ALEC's 2011 national conference and adds, "There are signs that the family does indeed have close ties to the organization."
According to Moore, the report wrongly accuses WFF of supporting the Council. The Waltons "do not currently fund and have never funded" ALEC, she said. Wal-Mart Stores dropped its ALEC membership in 2012 over the organization's stance on gun laws.
Mitchell added that environmental groups the Waltons do clearly support have a spotty sustainability record. Half of WFF’s environmental grants go to just four organizations: the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, the Marine Stewardship Council and Arizona State University’s Global Sustainability Institute. All four of these organizations work closely with large corporations, and have a “questionable relationship” to Wal-Mart in particular, said Mitchell.
The company’s decision to publicly embrace environmentalism in 2005 was ultimately a strategic move, she said. “Environmentalism for the Waltons is really a tool in service of a larger goal, and that larger goal is to protect and grow their empire, chiefly Wal-Mart.”
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is a separate entity from WFF. But it is worth noting -- since the Walton family owns the majority of Wal-Mart stock, worth an estimated $149 billion -- that the retail chain is currently the leader in terms of commercial solar installed. A report that ranks top corporate solar users released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association shows Wal-Mart at the top of the list for the third year in a row, with 105 megawatts of solar installed at 254 locations. Kohl's ranked second with 50 megawatts.
But Mitchell says that in comparison to the large size of the Wal-Mart enterprise, its solar adoption rate is underwhelming. According to a U.S. EPA report from July, less than 3 percent of the company’s energy comes from renewable sources.
So Wal-Mart could stand to adopt more solar, but does that make the company’s owners “a threat to our clean energy future”?
A separate report released today by the Carbon Disclosure Project gave Wal-Mart an "A" grade for its climate change mitigation activities. Wal-Mart stores also happen to sell residential off-grid solar panel kits.
“From our perspective, Wal-Mart’s commitment to solar energy is unquestioned, and we applaud the company for continuing to lead by example,” said Ken Johnson, vice president of communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
“Our differences with ALEC and other like-minded organizations are separate and apart,” he added. “The continued, self-serving attempts by some groups to block the expansion of net energy metering or rollback renewable portfolio standards in key states hurts our nation’s progress and threatens our energy security. We will continue to do everything possible to stymie these efforts, while aggressively championing the cause of solar at both the state and federal levels.”
In the net metering debate, First Solar has come down in favor of utilities seeking changes. The company stands to benefit from blocking household solar projects, “even if it means slowing the overall growth of solar,” according to ISLR.
But the company is not against distributed solar. Over the past two years, First Solar has made an effort to explore distributed generation, community solar, commercial and industrial rooftops and smaller off-grid energy access projects around the world as part of its business model. Utilities themselves see both risks and opportunities in distributed solar.
In response to a request for comment, First Solar pointed to an opinion article penned by CEO Jim Hughes last year that took a mild tone on the Arizona net metering battle. “The ACC and APS are right to seek the highest volume of solar power at the lowest cost to rate-paying customers,” he wrote. “Customers should also continue to have the right to connect their rooftop installations to the grid. But the rules governing solar installations -- no matter what the size -- need to be fair to everyone.”
GTM Research’s Shayle Kann noted in a recent webinar that compromise solutions are likely to crop up in states with increasing levels of distributed solar. One such solution is the concept of a minimum bill, a hybrid between net metering and a fixed charge, that’s currently being considered in Massachusetts.
But until compromises can be reached, tensions will continue to run high. The shift in who owns and profits from renewable energy is pitting industries against each other. Whether or not they are investing in clean energy, large corporations and investors like the Waltons are being pressured to divest entirely from organizations working against renewable energy.
Solar supporters, meanwhile, are preparing to defend their growing market share. With more battles on the horizon, SEIA’s Johnson said, “We’re digging in for a fight.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect statements that the Waltons have never funded ALEC