As of February 2021, IKEA had 54 solar panels installed in 90% of its US locations.
Harnessing the full solar potential on the roofs of these super stores will generate enough electricity to power nearly 8 million average homes, the report concludes, and will reduce the same amount of planet-warming emissions as driving 11.3 million gas-powered cars off the road.
According to the report, the average Walmart store has 180,000 square feet of roof, for example. According to the report, this is roughly the size of three soccer fields, and enough space to provide solar energy that could power the equivalent of 200 homes.
“Any roof in America that does not produce solar energy is a wasted roof as we work to break our dependence on fossil fuels and the accompanying geopolitical conflicts,” Johanna Neumann, Senior Director of Environment America’s 100% Renewable Energy Campaign said CNN. “The time has come to focus on local renewable energy production, and there is no better place than the roofs of the big American supermarkets.”Proponents involved in training programs for clean energy workers tell CNN that a solar revolution in large-scale commerce would also be a significant windfall for local communities, boosting economic growth while fighting the climate crisis that has caused disproportionate damage to marginalized communities.
However, only a fraction of large-area stores in the US have solar panels on roofs or canopies in parking lots, the report’s authors told CNN.
CNN contacted five of the top US retailers – Walmart, Kroger, Home Depot, Costco and Target – with the question: Why not invest in more solar panels on your roofs?
Many renewable energy experts point to solar energy as a relatively simple solution to cut costs and help reduce fossil fuel emissions, but companies point to several obstacles – regulations, labor costs, and the structural integrity of the roofs themselves – that prevent widespread adoption.
The need for such clean energy initiatives is “undoubtedly urgent” as the climate crisis worsens, said Edwin Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.
“We’re behind the eighth ball, to say the least,” Cowen told CNN. “I would be very glad if the policy could help encourage solar energy on rooftops 15 years ago, not five years ago in a commercial space. There is still a lot of work to be done. “
What’s holding up?
Neumann said Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, has by far the largest solar potential. According to the report, Walmart has approximately 5,000 stores in the United States and more than 783 million square feet of roof space – an area larger than Manhattan – and more than 8,974 gigawatt hours of annual solar potential on roofs.
According to the report, there is enough electricity to power more than 842,000 homes.
Walmart spokesman Mariel Messier told CNN that the company is involved in renewable energy projects around the world, but many of them are not solar rooftop installations. The company said it has completed on-site and off-site wind and solar projects or is in the process of developing others that can produce more than 2.3 gigawatts of renewable energy. Neumann said Environment America has met Walmart on several occasions, urging the retailer to commit to installing solar panels on rooftops and parking lots. The company announced that by 2035 it intends to obtain 100% of energy from renewable projects.
“Of all the retailers in America, Walmart will have the greatest impact if it installs solar panels in all of its stores,” said Neumann to CNN. “And for us, this report only highlights how much impact they can have if they make that decision.”
According to Environment America, Walmart installed nearly 194 megawatts of solar power at its U.S. facilities at the end of fiscal 2021 and additional power at external solar farms. The company’s California installations were expected to provide 20% to 30% of the electricity needs of each location.
According to the latest report by the industry trade group Solar Energy Industries Association, Target ranked first in terms of local solar power in 2019. It currently has 542 rooftop solar panel locations – around a quarter of the company’s stores, a Target spokesman told CNN. The spokesman said that the solar rooftop generates enough energy to meet between 15% and 40% of Target’s energy needs.
Richard Galanti, CFO at Costco, said the company has 121 rooftop solar panel stores around the world, 95 of which are located in the United States.
Walmart, Target and Costco have not shared with CNN their biggest hurdles to adding solar panels on rooftops or parking lots to more stores.
“I suspect they want an even stronger business case for deviating from the current behavior,” said Neumann. “Historically, all these roofs have done is cover their stores and think about how [they] using their buildings and thinking of them as energy generators, not just rain protection, requires little change in their business model. ‘
Home Depot, which has approximately 2,300 stores, currently has 75 rooftop solar farms completed, 12 under construction and more than 30 planned for future expansion, said Craig D’Arcy, the company’s director of energy management. On average, solar power, he said, generates about half of these stores’ energy needs.
Aging roofs in stores are “a huge obstacle” to solar installations, added D’Arcy. That said, if the roof needs replacement in the next 15 to 20 years or sooner, it doesn’t make sense for Home Depot to add solar systems today.
“Our goal is to implement solar roofs where the economy is attractive,” D’Arcy told CNN.
CNN also contacted Kroger, which has approximately 2,800 stores across the United States. Kristal Howard, a Kroger spokesman, said the company currently owns 15 properties – stores, distribution centers, and manufacturing facilities – with solar installations. Howard said one of the “many factors affecting the life span of a PV plant” was the stores’ ability to operate a PV plant on rooftops.
Cowen, an engineering professor at Cornell, said solar is already attractive, but labor costs, incentives, and varying levels of regulation likely pose some financial challenges for solar installations.
“For them, that usually means hiring a local installer who can do the installation and who knows local policy as well,” Cowen said. “This is just another layer of complexity that I think is starting to make sense as the costs have dropped enough, but it does require some kind of re-opening of that door to get into an existing building.”
Illinois representative Sean Casten, who co-chairs the House’s energy sector task force, said the United States has “failed to provide incentives for people who have the experience to enter and build these things.” Casten said the reason why both retail companies and the energy sector have not made much progress in the field of solar energy is because “our system is so chaotic” and has a complex regulatory structure.
“Why are we not doing something that makes economic sense? The answer is this terribly chaotic federal policy in which we massively subsidize the extraction of fossil energy and penalize clean energy production, ”Casten told CNN. “For a long, long time, if you’ve wanted to build a solar panel on a Walmart rooftop, your worst enemy will be the local utility company because they don’t want to lose their cargo.
“We could have done it decades ago,” added Casten. “If we did, we wouldn’t be in such a terrible climate situation, but we would also have a lot more money in our pocket.”
Acting fairly on the climate
For Charles Callaway, organizational director of the nonprofit group WE ACT for Environmental Justice, enhancing solar power on rooftops in large retail stores is obvious, especially if businesses allow the local community to benefit from installation work or sharing electricity produced later.
Either way, it would have a serious impact on containing the climate crisis and help in a fair transition from fossil fuels – and it’s doable, Callaway told CNN.
The New York resident ran an employee training program that helped train over 100 members of his local community, mostly people of color, to become solar installers. He also set up a cooperative of solar workers to ensure that many participants in the training program work in a difficult market.
Over the past two years, Callaway said his group not only installed solar panels on the roofs of inexpensive housing, but also devices capable of generating 2 megawatts of solar energy in shopping malls in upstate New York. He stressed that local employment would be most beneficial as local installers know the community and local regulations best.
“One of my big concerns is social equality,” Cowen said. “Access to renewable energy is quite a privileged position these days, and we need to find ways to make that not true.”
Jasmine Graham, energy justice manager at WE ACT, said the potential for building solar panels on rooftops in super stores is only encouraging, “only if these projects use local labor, if they pay an overwhelming salary, and if this solar energy is used in a way such as solar community that would make it possible [utility] bill discounts for people who live in the same service area.
Pressure is mounting for world leaders to urgently respond to the climate crisis after a UN report in late February warned that the window to action was closing rapidly.
Neumann believes that the United States can meet its energy needs through renewable energy sources. She said that all it takes is the political will to make this change, and the involvement of the local community, so that no one is left behind in the transition.
“The sooner we make this change, the sooner we have cleaner air, the sooner we have a better protected environment and better health, and the sooner we have a more livable future for our children,” said Neumann. “And even if it does require an investment, it is an investment worth making.”
Judson Jones of CNN contributed to this.