May 9th, 2014 by Sandy Dechert
By now, many of us have heard that the President spent a little time this morning at a Wal-Mart store in in Mountain View, California, near San Jose. Solar deployment and energy efficiency were the two main thrusts of his speech. He spoke about more than 300 recent private and public sector commitments to create jobs and cut carbon pollution.
The President’s choice of Wal-Mart as a venue for the announcements has drawn some criticism. “Of all the places he might give a big speech on energy, a Walmart supercenter is a baffling and disconcerting choice,” said researcher Stacy Mitchell in the Huffington Post (cross-posted in Grist). She sees the company as “one of the biggest and fastest-growing climate polluters on the planet” and cites as evidence a 2012 study published in Environmental Science & Technology called “Shop ‘Till We Drop: A Historical and Policy Analysis of Retail Goods Movement in the United States.”
However, Wal-Mart is the world’s largest public corporation (2014 Fortune Global 500 list), the biggest private employer in the world (over two million employees), and the world’s largest retailer. Showing up at Wal-mart certainly made an impression on a lot of people. Also, with the government’s new April drive, Wal-Mart has committed to double the number of onsite solar energy projects at its U.S. stores, Sam’s Clubs, and Distribution Centers by 2020. Overall, the company has committed to production or procurement of 7 billion kWh of renewable energy by the end of the decade.
More than 300 multifamily housing, homebuilder and home improvement, rural electric cooperative, commercial (retailers, food service, and hospitality), and public sector (states, cities, school districts) organizations have announced commitments to the new programs. The totals for today:
• Energy efficiency improvements for more than 1 billion square feet of buildings,
• 850 megawatts of solar deployed (powers 130,000 homes),
• New measures to implement $2 billion in energy efficiency in Federal buildings,
• Smarter appliances that will cut carbon pollution by more than 380 million metric tons, and
• Community college training programs to allow 50,000 workers to enter the solar industry by 2020.
The smart appliance programs alone are equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road for one year. They’re estimated to save businesses nearly $26 billion of energy spending.
“Climate change is a fact of life,” Obama said today, referring to wasted and polluting energy use.
Here are the broad executive actions the President announced to further support solar deployment, reduce the amount of energy consumed by American families, cut down on their energy bills, and create jobs today:
• Build a skilled solar workforce;
• Provide innovative financing for deploying solar;
• Drive investment in energy upgrades to federal buildings;
• Improve appliance efficiency; and
• Strengthen building codes.
For more details, see CleanTechnica or read the original White House fact sheet.
Obama stated that the private sector commitments and executive actions announced today “reinforce American leadership in innovating and deploying clean energy, cutting energy waste, and creating good paying jobs that cannot be outsourced.”
February 2011 (last term) marked the start of the Obama’s Better Buildings Challenge to help American commercial and industrial buildings become at least 20% more energy efficient by 2020. More than 190 diverse organizations, representing over 3 billion square feet, 600 manufacturing plants, and close to $2 billion in energy efficiency financing have stepped up to the challenge so far. They have saved 36 trillion BTUs and $300 million since the challenge began and are on track to meet the 2020 goal, each cutting average annual energy use by 2.5%.
Today, more leaders from across the country joined the coalition to advance energy efficiency. Twenty-five new states, cities, school districts, multifamily housing, retailers, food service, hospitality, and manufacturing organizations are joining the partnership. They have committed to improving energy efficiency in more than 1 billion square feet of additional floor space.
Seven new financial allies also stepped up to the challenge with a commitment of over $375 million:
• California Housing Partnership Corporation,
• Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority,
• Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.,
• Hannon Armstrong,
• Local Initiatives Support Corporation,
• Low Income Investment Fund, and
• Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Fund.
Twenty “Better Buildings Challenge Partners” are also committing to expand the challenge by cutting energy wasted from inefficient use of water. The President pointed out that US commercial and industrial sectors account for more than 25% of withdrawals from public water supplies. Many organizations in these sectors could save 20-40% by using water resources more efficiently. The result is lower operating costs, a more reliable water supply, improved water quality, and savings in the energy required to transport and treat this essential resource.
A small, diverse group has committed to demonstrate successful approaches to saving water and decreasing utility bills. Aeon, the cities of Atlanta, Fort Worth, and West Palm Beach, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Nissan North America, Kohl’s Department Stores, Staples, and TIAA-CREF are all on board.
Commenting on his reasons for using public-private investment and executive orders to implement these environment- and renewable-friendly initiatives, the President remarked:
“Congress has not always been as visionary on these issues as we would like.”
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), countered with this statement, according to USA Today:
“The president can’t claim an ‘all of the above’ strategy while he’s blocking the Keystone pipeline, slow-rolling the approval of new energy exploration, and proposing job-killing regulations that will destroy the American coal industry.”
It’s worth remembering that the President actually expedited the construction of the southern leg of Keystone XL. His caution with new energy exploration stands in positive contrast to the recklessness with which oil giants have approached drilling in the little-known Arctic and the frenetic pace of hydraulic fracturing despite new evidence that the practice can be involved in water disaster and the occurrence of earthquakes, to say nothing of ultimately harmful boom-bust development.
Finally, because of its huge negative environmental footprint—there is no such thing as “clean coal”—coal is increasingly viewed as a transitional rather than primary fuel. Internationally, this is even true in Australia, which has been mulling over plans for huge coal development in its interior. Except for coal-rich nations like Poland, Europe has backed off the black fossil fuel and steered toward renewables. China and India are also working on other resources, including solar and hydro, as quickly as they can.
And the US coal industry also appears to be killing itself. The Government Accountability Office in February uncovered systematic undervaluing, perhaps since the 1990s, of leases offered by Bureau of Land Management. This activity has recently cost the nation millions, and perhaps billions over the long run, in revenue.
As for jobs, as of last year, the nation now has more solar energy workers than coal miners. A study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga, Tennessee, investigated six new coal plants and found jobs there to be overestimated by about double the actual number. The industry itself has begun limiting investment in new mining areas. Last fall, one of BLM’s periodic lease sales, which offered over 100 tracts for coal development, generated not a single bid.
Getting back to the President’s California announcements today, Mr. Obama also singled out the following recent achievements:
• Last year, about a quarter of new power generation capacity was from solar—second only to natural gas.
• Growing solar deployment, led in large part by the utility sector, has driven down costs. Over only three years (2010-2013), the cost of residential/commercial solar energy has dropped by more than 50%.
• Since the President took office, America has increased its electricity generation from solar more than tenfold and tripled electricity product.
• Also over the past five years, the Department of Energy has put in place appliance efficiency standards that will save American consumers nearly $450 billion on utility bills through 2030.
Opinions about these developments, and even “facts,” seem to be all over the map. Probably some of us have more productive ideas…. Lay ’em on in the comments!
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