By Wesley Brown, Business Editor for Talk Business & Politics
The newly hired chief of Walmart’s energy division told members of the Arkansas Advance Energy Association (AAEA) on Tuesday (Oct. 20) that the retail giant’s ultimate goal in becoming 100% sustainable and supplied by renewable energy is still to reduce costs and bring lower prices to the retail giant’s millions of customers
“My responsibility as we execute these (goals) that we are doing is that at the same time we are reducing costs to Walmart and passing it on to the customers,” said Mark Vanderhelm, vice president of Walmart energy.
He was the keynote speaker at the AAEA’s annual meeting, where more than 200 members of the organization from across the state gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Little Rock to discuss policy issues concerning the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts.
Vanderhelm, who was hired in his role only four months ago, told the crowd of more than AAEA members that he was still getting use to the Bentonville retailer’s culture and acclimating himself to company’s global operational structure.
NEXT STEP ‘MORE COMPLICATED’
In his 25-minute presentation, Vanderhelm reiterated the pillar of retail giant’s global sustainability goal of becoming 100% fully supplied by renewable energy by the end of 2020. He said the company now produces or procures 20% renewable energy globally every year, but said the next step of reaching its 7 billion kilowatt hour (kWh) milestone will be more difficult and complex.
“This is the first chunk that we are going after,” the Walmart energy chief said. “When you think about a 20% reduction in energy, keep in mind the first 20% – we did that back in 2011 and 2012, but this next step is a whole lot more complicated.”
The next phase, Vanderhelm said, involves working with new technologies, outside vendors, universities and researchers, environmental innovators and companies in the Walmart’s massive global supply chain to move closer to the company’s historic goal. Walmart, which last month announced a 10-year plan to buy nearly 60% of the energy output from a West Texas wind farm, is now “starting down the path” of working with companies that have already developed technologies to help the retail conglomerate reach its sustainability goals, Vanderhelm said.
Today, the company’s core renewable energy activity is in the area of solar energy, where there are plans to grow the number of projects in operation or under development from 200 to 500 in the next 18 months. The other key planks of the company’s renewable energy portfolio are wind, fuel cell storage and other emerging technologies. The Walmart executive also said the company, through its 12-year relationship with industrial giant GE, is working on a number of projects to increase the company’s LED usage in sales floor lighting, parking lots and retail refrigerator displays.
“That is another whole level of getting energy efficiency done, and it is, as you can imagine, very challenging and I excited to be doing it here in our backyard in Arkansas,” he said. “But nevertheless, if you look at my organizational structure my first goal is that I have a P&L (profit and loss) responsibility. I am a part of operations, not the sustainability team, so I just wanted to make that clear.”
OTHER CLEAN POWER DISCUSSIONS
Before Vanderhelm’s keynote address, AAEA held two panel discussions in the morning session of the conference where panelist discussed the state’s growing solar energy marketplace and the impact that the Environmental Protection Agency’s far-reaching Clean Power Plan unveiled on Aug. 3 will have on the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts.
The discussion on the state’s solar energy efforts centered on the recent dedication of defense contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s 12-megawatt renewable energy project that will provide power to the fast-growing Highland Industrial Park in East Camden.
In February, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. and the East Camden defense contractor first announced the deal to build and manage what will officials then said would be the largest utility-scale solar field in Arkansas. Since then, Entergy Arkansas has announced a much larger solar project in 81-megawatt photovoltaic solar energy generating facility near Stuttgart.
At the AAEA panel discussion, Silicon Ranch CEO Matt Kisber said the solar field next to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s 1,200-acre manufacturing and test facility in the South Arkansas industrial park is 90% complete and is expected to come online later this year.
In the other panel discussion, Matt Stanberry, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advance Energy Economy, gave a primer on the consequences of President Obama’ Clean Power Plan for the state of Arkansas. Stanberry told the AAEA audience he believes the EPA will publish final rules on the far-reaching carbon emission rules in the Federal Register “any day now.” Once that happens, he said, the door will open for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and attorney generals in at least 23 other states to file a federal lawsuit to halt the president’s landmark climate change legislation.
“When those rules come out, that will open the possibility of real court proceedings,” Stanberry said.
Despite a possible lawsuit on the horizon by the Rutledge and other AGs across the U.S., state Public Service Commission Executive Director John Bethel told AAEA members that Arkansas regulators will continue its “two-pronged” approach of drawing up a plan to comply with EPA rules in case litigation fails to halt the 3,000-page federal mandate.