Apple, IKEA, Walmart: 12 leaders in on-site renewables

On-site solar arrays are one leading strategy for companies looking to reduce the environmental footprint of their centers of operation.

Call them renewable energy pioneers. The number of high-profile companies calling for power procurement policy changes or making direct investments in clean energy sources grew exponentially over the past 12 months.

Over the summer, a dozen trend-setters — including General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and Walmart — wrote and signed the Corporate Renewable Energy Pledge asking utility companies to make it simpler for them to buy power generated sustainably through solar, wind, fuel cells and other alternative sources.

More than 19 big brands are on board, representing a combined demand of more than 10 million megawatt hours (MWhs) per year. Or, put another way, enough power to run 1 million homes for a year.

Then, in October, another group of companies lit up the RE100 campaign, which seeks to convince 100 of the world's largest companies to switch over to 100 percent renewable power. First on board:  BT, Commerzbank, FIA Formula E, H&M, IKEA, KPN, Mars, Nestle, Philips, Reed Elsevier, J. Safra Sarasin, Swiss Re and Yoox. (IKEA and Swiss Re were the founding sponsors.) 

Both developments underscore growing frustration within the corporate world with the level of progress being made (or not made) by utility companies adding renewable energy-generating sources.

Many big companies buy renewable energy credits as a method of addressing their carbon footprint, and have done some for quite some time. Now, they are taking matters into their own hands, often in the name of guaranteeing price stability and energy independence decades into the future.  No more baby steps.

"I wonder if we sometimes miss the swing-for-the-fences moment, where you throw all the incremental goals away and say, 'Why can't we go for something different and important?'" said Apple sustainability chief Lisa Jackson during GreenBiz's recent VERGE event. "Those are the moments we are striving for."

So, which companies have made the most progress so far?

The Environmental Protection Agency provides a quarterly ranking of companies involved in on-site renewables projects through its Green Power Partnership program. Using that information as a starting point, here's my list of 12 big companies taking clean power generation into their own hands.  

1. Adobe Systems

The software company is striving to make its San Jose, Calif., headquarters carbon neutral by 2015. As a high-profile user of biogas-powered fuel cells from Bloom Energy, Adobe's capacity reached 1.6 megawatts by January 2012. The company also has installed 20 Windspire vertical-axis turbines.

2. Apple

The high tech giant's commitment to solar energy is well documented. Apple owns the largest private solar arrays in the United States, alongside a massive fuel-cell installation. The Maiden, N.C., data center where these are located generates about 167 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year from these sources.

3. BMW 

The automaker's plant in Spartanburg, S.C., invested more than 12 years ago in a system that uses landfill gas to power two gas turbines there. The solution has 11 megawatts of capacity. That's just the start of the BMW manufacturing operation's trailblazing investments. Its Munich facility uses at least 3,660 solar panels, while the research and development center there is powering test benches with energy recovered from brake energy.

4. Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola's sustainability plans for bottle and can recycling, as well as water conservation, are scrutinized pretty closely. But it also ranks highly on the EPA list of big onsite-renewables investors. Central to the company's strategy is a 6.5-megawatt combined heat-and-power plant in Atlanta that was commissioned in April 2012. The system (fifth largest of its kind in the United States) is fueled by methane captured from a landfill. It generates 48 million kWh of power annually.

5. eBay

While much of the e-commerce giant's focus has been on data center efficiency, eBay's latest public goal (PDF) is to source at least 8 percent of its power from "cleaner" sources by 2015. In its 2013 report, the company said it was close to that goal, with 7.5 percent of total global electricity sourced according to that mandate. One of the high-profile projects that helped eBay get there: a 5-megawatt waste heart recovery system and fuel cell array in Utah, made possible after eBay lobbied for changes in state laws that previously prevented businesses from purchasing electricity directly from developers.

6. Google

Mention a radical idea for generating clean or renewable energy and chances are the Internet search giant is testing it, or at least evaluating the potential. While Google doesn't have as many on-site installations as some other companies on this list, the company has invested $1.5 billion in renewable energy projects globally. In particular, it buys wind-generated power directly from farms close to its data centers, disclosing at least seven contracts of this nature for more than 1,040 megawatts of wind energy. Google was also early to rooftop solar, installing the largest corporate solar panel of its kind (1.7 megawatts) back in 2007.


Mega-retailer IKEA has installed solar generating technologies at almost 90 percent of its U.S. store locations, totaling almost 40 megawatts worth of generating capacity. Several of these deployments, such as the one being built in Canton, Mich., qualify as the largest rooftop arrays in their respective states. Overall, IKEA has committed $1.8 billion to renewable energy investments through 2015. In particular, the company has bet big on wind energy and in mid-November bought its second U.S. wind farm, a 165-megawatt facility in Texas.

8. Kaiser Permanente

As of mid-2014, the managed healthcare organization had installed solar panels at 13 locations representing 11.3 megawatts of generating capacity. Now, Kaiser is in the process of installing 50 more megawatts in Hawaii, California and Colorado. Yes, the investments are part of the company's broad sustainability plan. But they also are meant to protect against escalating power costs.

"Pursuing clean energy opportunities is not only the right thing to do for our communities, it makes good business sense," said Rame Hemstreet, vice president of facilities operations and Kaiser's chief energy officer.

9. Kohl's

As of January, the company supported at least 160 solar installations in 13 states through power purchase agreements with SunEdison. Each location generates roughly 40 percent of the power required to run the store. The largest system as of the beginning of 2014 was at the retailer's Edgewood, Md., distribution center: 8,360 panels generating about 3 million kWhs annually. Kohl's also has installed on-site wind turbines in Ohio and Texas.

10. S.C. Johnson & Son

According to the EPA, the family-owned manufacturer, which markets well-known cleaning products such as Shout, Windex and Scrubbing Bubbles, sources about 40 percent of its global energy from renewable sources. Among the projects that have helped it get there: two 415-foot wind turbines and co-generation systems at its biggest manufacturing facility in Wisconsin, biofuels in Indonesia and solar panel installations in China.

11. Volkswagen

From a corporate perspective, the car manufacturer (like Google) is directly investing in wind farm developers to the tune of an estimated $1.4 billion. But VW makes this list because of the 9.5-megawatt, 33,000-panel solar array powering its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The installation was designed to support up to 12.5 percent of the 1.9-million-square-foot plant during full production, and up to 100 percent during non-peak periods.

12. Walmart

It makes sense that the world's largest retailer is widely considered to be the biggest corporate supporter of on-site renewable energy projects, thanks to a combination of fuel cells, rooftop solar and utility wind projects. According to its website, the company had more than 335 renewable energy projects under way at the end of 2013 worth an estimated 2.2 billion kWhs of production. Walmart was a charter supporter of the Renewable Energy Buyers' Principles, which advocate simple procurement processes for power sources through clean or sustainable fuel sources.