Lake Erie wind

Could Walmart Lead The Way To A Green Future?

Edward Humes' new book about Walmart's efforts to be more environmentally responsible - an effort, by the way, the company started begrudgingly - is both hopeful and terrifying.

The book, "Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution," details the ongoing evolution of the world's largest retailer into a leader of sustainability. After initial doubts, the company discovered that going green actually boosted profits - and now is urging its 100,000 suppliers - and competitors - to join in.

Humes writes, "Wal-Mart has made it impossible for any corporation to claim plausibly that sustainability is a risky choice." That bodes well for the green movement. Walmart's clout is without question, and can only be a catalyst.

The terrifying part rears its head about half way through, when Humes, a Pulitzer Prize winner, updates calculations of an earlier study by a professor of ecological economics who put a value on nature's assets: "(By 2010), Ecosystems were being used up or destroyed at a rate of $2 to $5 trillion a year. At that rate, factoring in current growth in population and manufacturing set against nature's innate ability to replenish itself, the world's natural capital - fresh air, fresh water, all the things we depend upon - will be depleted by the year 2046," Humes writes.

That is only 35 years away. My daughter will be 54 years old. I hope those calculations are off for the sake our our future - and for my daughter and grandchildren. Tom Miller, an environmental analyst that Humes quotes extensively, predicts an increase in worldwide pressure and a demand for stronger regulations as the deteriorating environment becomes more obvious to ordinary citizens.

The idea that Walmart is helping lead the change is remarkable. After all, this is a company that people love to hate - and by 2004 it was swimming in hate. It was being hammered for an employee health-care program that many claimed was a joke, and for poor wages and other issues - which are duly noted in the book. Walmart's reputation was so bad that, as Humes notes, it was "the poster child for global warming, mass extinction, smog and urban sprawl."

The negative news was taking a toll; an internal Walmart study showed that up to 8 percent of its customer base had stopped shopping there.

So, then-CEO H. Lee Scott started looking for something positive, a program that Walmart could tout. The idea came from board chairman S. Robson "Rob" Walton, the eldest son of the late Sam Walton, who founded the company. Rob Walton, who was interested in environmental causes, hooked Scott up with environmental consultant Jib Ellison.

In the book, Scott sounds like someone who really didn't believe "green" was profitable, but Walmart needed to do something, and carving out a small sustainability niche might help. The first focus: waste.

What it discovered would fundamentally change the company - at least when it came to sustainability.

Walmart is one of the leading sellers of toys on the planet. Shrinking the package on one toy allowed the retailer to stuff more packages in a truck, which, reduced the number of truck trips and cut its fuel bill by a whopping $2.4 million per year. It was so simple, yet no one in Walmart had ever considered it.

As Humes notes, "That was significant for a low-margin retailer...The company would have had to sell $60 million worth of that toy to earn the same $2.4 million in profits."

Walmart had become a believer.

That led to an expanded effort - and to solar panels, windmill turbines and fuel cells on buildings; a drive toward sustainable agriculture (Walmart says it can save money by purchasing food closer to its stores); and, as of now, an 80 percent landfill diversion rate. The company is even working on an ambitious landmark sustainability index for suppliers to follow.

With more than $14 billion in profit last year, Walmart can pretty much set the agenda. Today, it has set three main objectives: using renewable power to supply all of its operations, to create zero waste and to sell products that are environmentally safe. For example, phosphates in dish and laundry soaps on Walmart shelves in Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America were cut almost 30 percent last year. - and have been removed entirely from its stores in the U.S., Humes notes.

Who knows how far Walmart will go. It certainly has the financial resources to create a major green footprint. Many people remain skeptical, calling it greenwashing. But, as Humes says, the younger generation is concerned about the environment, and Walmart knows it has to find a way to capture them.

Humes cites John Fleming, a former chief of merchandising for Walmart: "This is our opportunity to connect with the next generation..."

As the world's largest retailer, Walmart can help drive the green agenda. Here is a link to a video on Walmart's sustainability plan.

Company photo of windmills at Walmart store in Palmdale

Offshore wind farms gain watery foothold

A wind farm is expected to sprout from Lake Erie five to 10 miles offshore from Cleveland.

It'll start small at 20 megawatts or so. But the developer, nonprofit Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. has bigger plans, aiming for 1,000 megawatts over the next decade.

"We want Northern Ohio to be the epicenter of a new freshwater offshore wind power industry with associated manufacturing, shipping, and construction jobs," said Lorry Wagner, Lake Erie Energy Development Corp president, in a statement Tuesday about the naming of the project's development team. "Today's milestone will position our region as a model for innovation in clean energy and help spur economic development in Northern Ohio."

Construction is expected to start sometime in 2012.

Wagner's project treads groundbreaking territory. Should his team, which includes Bechtel and two other companies with big experience in wind and offshore development, succeed in navigating regulatory hurdles, their project would be one of a select few in the nation and a beacon to others.

The sight of wind turbines may have become common in many regions and people like former oil man T. Boone Pickens may have bought heavily into the concept. But that's on land. Offshore wind farms just don't happen in the United States.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by the nine-year controversy surrounding the Cape Wind project was approved in April by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Yet, the 130 turbines, which are scheduled to be installed off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. by 2012, remain politically sensitive.

Jim Motavelli in a story that appeared soon after the Cape Wind approval wrote on that the project was the first to be federally approved offshore.

The U.S. Department of Energy in its 2009 Wind Market Report said: "2,476 MW of offshore projects have advanced significantly in the permitting and development process. Of those projects, three have signed or proposed power purchase agreements with terms and details have been made public ... and a variety of other recent project and policy announcements demonstrate accelerated activity in the offshore wind energy sector."

Motavelli, a New York Times contributor and author, said DOE has reported the United States has the capacity to generate significantly more than 20 percent of its energy from wind.

Wagner's Lake Eerie project is one of the steps to realizing that potential. He said on the phone Tuesday that they're taking it slow and keeping the project small to start. He said Ohio regulators are working with his team -- Bechtel Development Co. Inc., Cavallo Great Lakes Ohio Wind LLC and Great Lakes Wind Energy LLC -- to craft a strategy for moving forward.

After all, while offshore natural gas development in the lake -- on the Canadian side -- is common, offshore wind power is a completely new concept and none of the environmental concerns has been addressed. Nor is there a specific process by which to address them.

Wagner said his development team was chosen for its talent and experience.

Indicators suggest more regional governments will be working to craft regulations for offshore wind power. The feds likely will have a lot more projects to review and include in their annual wind reports about offshore installations from here on out.

I'd like to see a couple of monster wind machines in Shelikof Strait in Alaska. I recall a trip in 1971 returning from Kodiak Island in my uncle's 50-foot fishing boat riding 30 or 40 foot seas and a relatively warm post-Christmas wind beating the heck out us. May as well harness that. With such resources -- and a long cable -- wind power could energize the Kenai Peninsula.