1 Big Thing Wal-Mart Is Doing Right (For Once)

You will be hard pressed to find any one willing to claim that Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT  ) doesn't deserve the bull's-eye on its back. The world's largest retailer is almost universally reviled for the way it treats its employees and decimates smaller competitors with its pricing power. But that doesn't mean everything the retail giant does is terrible. In fact, when it comes to cutting our nation's energy footprint, Wal-Mart is doing more for you and me and everyone we know than any other American retailer.

Solar panels on a Wal-Mart store in Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Wal-Mart Stores

Power up
No company, institution, federal agency, city or township in America produces more renewable energy onsite than Wal-Mart . It sounds nice, but it is actually very important for two reasons. First, with an enormous footprint, the less fossil fuel-produced energy Wal-Mart consumes the better.

Second, by producing renewable energy on site, Wal-Mart stores provide the impetus -- and the cash -- for wind turbine and solar panel innovation. Wal-Mart is a big customer and renewable energy companies will go to great lengths developing products and driving costs down to win its business. That benefits not just other retail establishments looking to increase their own green power generation, but all of us in the long run.

Lights out savings
Take for example Wal-Mart's movement to embrace LED lighting. In April, the company announced its largest ever purchase of General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) lighting technology. GE's new lights use 40% less energy than the stores' traditional lighting fixtures, which should reduce the total energy consumption at each Wal-Mart store by 5%.

If you only have one store, saving 5% on energy costs might not be something to write home about, but again, Wal-Mart's size is its power here. There are 4,203 Wal-Marts and 632 Sam's Clubs in the U.S., plus 6,107 international Wal-Mart locations. When a company scales 5% energy savings over a footprint like that, investors will see the results on the balance sheet. The savings is even more important now, as operational costs as a percentage of sales ticked up 18 basis points in the international segment last year. 

There are benefits for GE investors related to Wal-Mart's scale -- that's a lot of light bulbs -- but that company is not the only winner . 

"We have worked to find and scale energy-efficient LED lighting solutions that are cost effective and high quality, and now working with GE, we're paving the way to make this a mainstream solution for the retail industry," CEO Doug McMillon said in April .

Wal-Mart has a history of paving the way for the retail industry when it comes to energy savings, and lighting in particular. It implemented LED lights for freezer cases in 2005 that used 70% less energy than existing options. The LED system has since become the industry standard enabling all retailers to save energy, and save money .

Bottom line
There is no question that as a complete entity, Wal-Mart leaves something to be desired. But its increasing commitment to cutting its energy footprint and growing its renewable energy sources should not be written off merely because it just so happens to be Wal-Mart. And while investors may not be keen on buying Wal-Mart stock any time soon, they would be wise to take a long look at the company that is setting the standard for energy innovation, if only to apply that standard to another investment opportunity.

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