Walmart family accused of ‘threatening clean energy growth’

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The Waltons, owners of one of the USA’s biggest retailers and the country’s richest family, have been accused of threatening America’s “clean energy future” in a new report published by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR).

The report alleges that the family, which owns retailer Walmart, has funded “nearly two dozen” anti-solar groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity. ILSR also claims that the family’s 30% stake in thin-film firm First Solar can be seen as an “an instructive case study of the complexities of contemporary green-washing”.

Stacy Mitchell, the report’s author, said that despite cultivating a public image of being committed to sustainability, the family “are investing in efforts that both undercut clean energy and prevent average Americans from benefitting economically from solar power”.

Mitchell’s report cites figures that she says contradicts Walmart’s public stance on clean energy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as of 28 July 2014, only 3% of Walmart’s energy use came from renewable sources. ILSR also says that between 2005, when Walmart launched an environmental campaign, and last year, the company’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 14%.

According to Mitchell, while the Walton Family Foundation did not list ALEC as a grantee, a leaked document appears to show that the foundation put in US$50,000 to sponsor an ALEC conference. Walmart was also a “leading member” of the lobbying group until as recently as 2012, after a 20-year involvement, the report states. Normally thought to operate ‘behind the scenes’ in its work influencing policy and public opinion, ALEC hit international headlines this summer when Google left the group over its stance on climate change.

Calling ALEC a “secretive network of state lawmakers and big corporations”, ILSR senior researcher Mitchell highlights the group’s instrumental role in drafting bills to “thwart renewable energy in dozens of states, including legislation to impose fees on households with rooftop solar”.

Among numerous other so-called anti-solar groups that ILSR claims are backed by the Walton family through its foundation and other ventures are the American Enterprise Institute and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has, according to Mitchell, received over three-quarters of a million dollars in the last four years as a grantee of Walton Family Foundation. AEI has published reports and articles criticising clean energy “as expensive, infeasible, and, bizarrely, a threat to air quality”, Mitchell says, before going on to say that AEI “argues that states should repeal clean energy policies and instead provide more support for oil and gas”.

Americans for Prosperity, also backed as a grantee of the foundation, was founded by the Koch brothers and funds activities including television commercials that seek to sway public opinion against clean energy. ILSR says that AFP has been “instrumental in each of the wins against clean energy” across the USA.

Meanwhile, the Waltons have a controlling interest in First Solar, owning around 30% of the thin-film company. The late John Walton purchased the stake through his company True North Venture Partners.

ILSR claims that First Solar’s lobbying in favour of fees for rooftop solar customers in Arizona was an example of it siding with utilities and fossil fuel companies. First Solar spoke out in defence of a plan by Arizona’s biggest utility Arizona Public Service (APS) to levy fees on net metering. At the time, analyst Matt Feinstein of Lux Research told PV Tech that the policy was likely to be an example of opponents including lobbying groups trying to shut solar down “state-by-state”.

Mitchell argues that not only did First Solar cite in its latest annual report that rooftop solar offers direct competition to its business model of building utility-scale PV plants for utility companies, but that “pushing an anti-rooftop agenda is also a great way to curry favor with utilities, First Solar’s primary customers”.

The report strongly condemns First Solar and draws close comparison between it and the retail monolith that provides a third of its backing.

“First Solar, which is headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, subscribes to what could be characterised as a Walmart-style approach to energy,” Stacy Mitchell writes.

“Centralised ownership and management of power generation, production jobs that are outsourced overseas, and minimal say or benefit for local communities.”

Mitchell was equally scathing on the motivation behind what she called Walmart’s ‘greenwash’.

“If you claim to be socially responsible, that can be measured by how much you pay your workers and what you do for the communities in which you operate. But being green is largely self-defined. Yes, the Waltons give big grants to environmental organisations and, yes, Walmart has made modest improvements in things like product packaging. But, as the Walton family’s efforts to impede rooftop solar and its support of anti-clean energy groups and politicians illustrate, the Waltons’ environmentalism is not a step toward transformative change. It’s a means of burnishing their own image and growing their retail empire, as well as a broad tool for expanding the power of corporations and wealthy investors.”

PV Tech made attempts to reach Walmart, True North and First Solar for comment but could not make contact in time for publication.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance report can be read here.

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