Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
7/31/2009
07:45 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary
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Can Wal-Mart Sell The Power Of The Sun?

I'm a huge fan of Wal-Mart and its passionate commitment to customers and its ability to do things at an unmatched scale and with unmatched efficiency. Even so, I'm not buying an investment advisor's frothy analysis of how Wal-Mart is looking to harness the power of the sun to become one of the country's largest producers - and sellers - of electrical power.

I'm a huge fan of Wal-Mart and its passionate commitment to customers and its ability to do things at an unmatched scale and with unmatched efficiency. Even so, I'm not buying an investment advisor's frothy analysis of how Wal-Mart is looking to harness the power of the sun to become one of the country's largest producers - and sellers - of electrical power.For the past several years, solar power's capacity and scalability has been limited by the scarcity of a material called polysilicon that has been essential in making the solar cells used in the solar panels that collect the energy of the sun, says investment advisor David Fessler on SeekingAlpha.com.

"But as in other areas of the semiconductor industry," Fessler writes, "technology marches on. The newest panels are based on thin-film technology, and don't require polysilicon. No fewer than 143 companies are involved in some aspect of thing-film panel technology."

Economies of scale, he says, will lower the cost of thin-film technologies and solar panels themselves even as improvements in design and processes increase their efficiency and capacity, which Fessler says "will soon make solar panels the cheapest source of power on the planet."

Okay, so far so good: kinda dreamy, but it's a big-picture idea and leans hard on American ingenuity and those are pretty good fundamentals, especially since the plan so far has excluded any involvement by the federal government. But then Fessler adds 2 + 2 and gets 10,767:

Wal-Mart Stores is already evaluating the feasibility of installing solar energy panels on the roofs of its stores. Consider it "dipping a toe" in the water to check its temperature.

--If an experiment involving a few stores pans out, Wal-Mart could decide to roll out panels to all of its stores. That's about 35 square miles of surface area. --Using a very conservative figure of around 3 watts per square foot, Wal-Mart could realistically expect to produce in the neighborhood of 3 Gigawatts of power. --That would make the low-cost retailer one of the largest power producers in the country.

Now replicate that scenario on every warehouse, and big box store in the country, and you begin to get the idea that solar energy could reasonably provide a significant percentage of the power we use, especially during peak usage times.

Again, I'm all for big dreams and wacky approaches, but this one has some blind spots the size of Arkansas in it. For example:

--Can you imagine the mess the not-so-invisible hand of governmental bureaucracy and regulation would make out of this plan? Environmental-impact studies for the next century, zoning hearings, regulatory applications, mountains of public-utility forms followed by thousands of PUC meetings, and so forth - and that's all before even so prodigious an achiever as Wal-Mart can get the first watt of solar energy harnessed. Is this the best use of Wal-Mart's time and money?

--The sheer and irrational hatred of Wal-Mart by organized labor and their cronies in local governments would follow their well-established pattern of blocking, fighting, and undercutting every attempt Wal-Mart makes to expand its business. Is standing up to yet another dishonest smear campaign in Wal-Mart's best interest?

--Fessler's own blithe dismissal of the enormous challenges of capturing, storing, metering, and preserving electrical power: "Storage when the sun isn't shining is certainly an issue, but scientists and engineers are already designing load-shifting storage systems that will provide power during times of darkness or on cloudy days." Well, that settles that little wrinkle, doesn't it? I mean, Fessler's not talking about doing all this just to warm the water in a kiddie-pool, is he?

No, I fear that for all of Wal-Mart's capabilities, and for all the delightful images such a scenario can inspire, this solar-power plan is more a fairy tale than business plan. But who knows - I wouldn't ever underestimate Wal-Mart, and crazy dreams aren't always as crazy as they first seem. Remember that it was less than 30 years ago when Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corp., famously groused, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

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