MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Flanked by patio lights for $4.47 and women’s tops for $14.44, President Barack Obama spoke Friday at a Walmart in the heart of Silicon Valley and rolled out his plan for energy reform, an ambitious effort to convert more businesses, homes and government buildings to solar power.
“This may look like a typical Wal-Mart, but it’s not,” he said. “And that’s why I’m here.”
Obama — in the final stop of a three-day trip to California, including two Democratic National Committee fundraisers Thursday night in Los Altos and San Jose — praised the store’s solar panels, LED lighting and updated refrigeration systems as examples of the redoubled efforts he wants private companies and the government to make toward a cleaner, greener future.
But Obama’s choice of Wal-Mart to highlight private-sector energy efficiency enraged those who see the retail giant and its low-wage jobs as a major driver of the income gap that Obama so often speaks of trying to narrow. Hundreds of labor union members and other activists protested outside the store Friday as Obama spoke inside.
The president’s energy initiative — an executive action that calls for investments in more solar energy jobs, upgrading homes and buildings to be more efficient, and partnerships with the housing and tech industries — is a core piece of Obama’s oft-derailed climate change effort and aims to move the country away from foreign oil dependency while creating more jobs to spur the nation’s wavering economic recovery.
“As Americans, we don’t look backwards; we look forward. We don’t fear the future; we seize it,” Obama said. “We are blessed when it comes to energy, but we’re much more blessed when it comes to the innovation and the dynamism and the creativity of our economy.”
Some political analysts noted that announcing the initiative in a Wal-Mart not only set it in a place familiar and comfortable to many Americans, but also in the embrace of the world’s biggest public corporation and largest employer — founded and owned by the world’s richest family, the Waltons, who have contributed a small fortune to conservative causes.
That makes the fight against climate change look as American as mom’s apple pie and could provide a crucial bulwark — “See, even Wal-Mart knows we need this!” — against criticism he’ll soon get when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releases strict new standards for reducing carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.
“Two years ago, I ordered $2 billion in energy upgrades to federal buildings,” Obama said. “Today, I’m ordering an additional $2 billion in upgrades over the next three years. And these upgrades will create tens of thousands of construction jobs and save taxpayers billions of dollars.”
Perhaps the most transformative item in the administration’s energy initiative is the new efficiency standards for walk-in coolers and freezers and electric motors, which will help reduce carbon pollution by up to 158 million metric tons — equivalent to the annual electricity use of more than 21 million homes, or shutting down three average-size coal-fired power plants. The White House says it will save businesses and consumers an estimated $26 billion on utility bills through 2030.
The renewed push comes on the heels of this week’s release of a National Climate Assessment, which found climate change’s effects have arrived faster and more severely than anticipated.
“It’s causing hardship now. It’s affecting every sector of our economy and our society — more severe floods, more violent wildfires. It’s already costing cities and states and families and businesses money,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, inside of Washington we’ve still got some climate deniers who shout loud, but they’re wasting everybody’s time on a settled debate. Climate change is a fact.”
Wal-Mart has just committed to doubling on-site solar energy projects at its U.S. stores, Sam’s Clubs and distribution centers by 2020 — part of the company’s global initiative to drive production or procurement of 7 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy by the end of that year. The Mountain View store in which Obama spoke now gets 14.5 percent of its energy from solar systems built and installed by SolarCity, based in San Mateo and one of Wal-Mart’s biggest solar vendors.
Wal-Mart gets just a fraction of its total energy from solar — about 3 percent — but because the retailer is the world’s largest private employer, that’s enough to rank it sixth on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top “green power users.”
But Obama’s choice of Wal-Mart to highlight private-sector energy efficiency enraged many on the left.
Among the hundreds protesting outside was Efrain Aguilera, a farm worker from Salinas who held one corner of a giant sign saying: “Mr. President, support our Wal-Mart workers.” He said the labor movement is disappointed with Obama because it worked so hard to get him elected and yet now he’s lending support to Wal-Mart.
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Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a University of California, Berkeley, professor, agreed.
“What numbskull in the White House arranged this?” Reich wrote on his Facebook page Friday, noting that Wal-Mart’s greenhouse gas emissions grew 2 percent last year to nearly half a million metric tons while the company still lags behind other big companies on renewable power.
“More to the point, Wal-Mart is one of the nation’s largest and worst employers — low wages, unreliable hours, few benefits, discrimination against women, and anti-union,” Reich wrote. “Most of the rest of us are subsidizing Wal-Mart by paying for the food stamps and Medicaid its workers need because Wal-Mart doesn’t pay them enough to keep them out of poverty.”
Yet the same cost-savings motivations that have led Wal-Mart to cut corners on labor have also driven the retailer to become a model for energy efficiency, some energy experts say. As Wal-Mart grew into a retail colossus with more than 4,200 stores and supercenters, reducing energy costs became paramount.
“Wal-Mart has a very aggressive and thoughtful office that looks at energy efficiency in the entire supply chain,” said Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at Cal.
A few Silicon Valley tech leaders have also signed onto Obama’s energy plan. Apple is building a 2.8 million-square-foot headquarters that will also run entirely on renewables, including a rooftop solar system, and has committed to powering all its facilities with green energy; Yahoo announced it will add a solar installation to its Sunnyvale headquarters by early 2015; and Google announced on Friday a $1 million prize to develop the next generation of power inverters, or cooler-size boxes that help homes run on solar panels.
Said Arun Majumdar, Google’s vice president of energy: “The innovations inspired by this prize will help make renewable energy more affordable, electric vehicles lighter, and electric motors significantly more efficient.”
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