Strange Bedfellows

When it comes to discussing the value and power of a clean-energy future, in a way that touches core values and life-experiences of a good share of Americans, perhaps it is time to think and speak about UMW.  No, not the United Mine Workers.  Instead, when we think of UMW and energy, we should turn to three “institutions” that have a particular role in America (and Americans’ lives):

  1. Universities:  Americans aspire to see their children go to university.  “Seventy-five percent of parents in 2010 thought a college education was very important, versus only 58 percent in 1983 and 36 percent in 1978.”
  2. Military:  The military is, according to poll after poll, the most respected institution in America.
  3. Wal-Mart: Yes, Wal-Mart, bear with me, Wal-mart is the largest retailer in the United States and each year, 93 percent of American households shop at Wal-Mart.

Not only are UMW central to Americans aspirations, values, and consumer habits, they are institutions that, in their own ways and for their own reasons, are leaders in energy efficiency and renewable energy (EE/RE) moving the country toward a sustainable and resilient future.

Across the nation, universities are tackling energy efficiency and sustainability for a range of reasons from pure fiscal (energy savings) to needing to meet youth expectations (note Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges) to a fundamental respect for science with an understanding of climate change and the need for universities to take a leadership role in climate mitigation efforts.

Energized by service members wounded and killed protecting oil convoys in Iraq (and Afghanistan) and stunned by 2008 oil price spike, the military had already started to address energy challenges seriously when the Obama Administration began to take steps to accelerate these actions.  Real-world events, a growing military realization of threats and opportunities, and an Administration intent on fostering American leadership in the clean-energy sector have coalesced to foster real change across the military services when it comes to the energy domain.   Again, the military focus derives from a C2 focus: costs (in blood, treasure, and risks) and capability (reduced risks and improved capabilities).  Increasingly, America’s military is realizing that Energy Smart practices are a path toward increased capabilities at lowered cost and lower risks.

When it comes to being focused ‘on the bottom line’, there are few companies out there that match Wal-Mart in public imagination or business reality. Renowned for low wage strategies that leave employees seeking public assistance for basic needs and avoiding buying pens for its Corporate staff, Wal-Mart isn’t exactly a poster child of doing good for the sake of the general good.  Wal-Mart has discovered that a dedicated focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy options will lower costs to “fulfill our mission to save people money”.   Installing cool roofs (when doing a new roof or a reroofing) has such a good pay back (weeks) that, according to a Wal-Mart executive, “the numbers are so good that we’ve mandated it on all projects. In fact, the numbers are so good that if we ever build a store at the North Pole, we’d white roof it even though, in that case, it might not payoff.”

Installing skylights has a direct payback of something like 14 months in energy savings but also leads to boosted sales during sunny weather.  Putting doors on refrigerated units and using LED light drives down energy use by well over 70 percent while reducing losses due to spoilage.  And, Wal-Mart is driving energy efficiency into its supply chain and clearly expects to see reduced costs return. Wal-Mart is also sharing best practices and lessons with other American companies with the planning that (a) increased demand for energy efficient products will drive down costs to use them and (b) reduced energy costs will mean more money in Americans’ pockets (e.g., Wal-Mart customers will have more money to spend at Wal-Mart).  Roughly one percent of America’s energy use, Wal-Mart estimates that its suppliers equal about ten times that and similar companies about the same.  If Wal-Mart achieves a 25 percent reduction in its energy use and manages to drive that into suppliers and competitors, this is the equivalent to reducing total U.S. energy usage by five percent … all done while providing a path for increased Wal-Mart profitability.

Each of these have a particular role in America’s life (especially, in my opinion, among many who might cringe with the term “green” and (mistakenly) think that “environment” is at odds with “economy”) and each is a leader in establishing paths for a prosperous, secure, climate-friendly future.

Universities. Military. Wal-Mart. Each of these have determined that Energy Smart practices are, simply, smart and help achieve their objectives (improved educational performance (universities), securing the nation (military), making a profit (Wal-Mart)).   In the battle to popularize energy efficient choices, we should not overlook the decisions of the institutions where Americans want their children to go, the institution which Americans most trust, and the store Americans most often shop.

This post originally appeared here.

Image Credit: Mike Kalasnik via Wikimedia Commons




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