More evidence of the Wal-Mart effect

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greenest of them all? Well, if you’re in the retail sector the obvious answer to that is Wal-Mart. There was much skepticism initially of Wal-Mart’s attempts to go green. Many believed its quest to reduce energy consumption, embrace rooftop solar systems and clean up its transport fleet was yet another attempt at feel-good marketing — a bid to win over consumers who believed Wal-Mart was an evil retail monster aimed at taking over every small town in America. At the recent Cleantech Forum in Toronto, Rand Waddoups, senior director of corporate strategy and sustainability at Wal-Mart, admitted that the retailer’s green strategy was initially adopted from a defensive posture. “We started by saying ‘this could be a real problem for us, we need to understand how big of a problem this could be.’ Over time, we realized this wasn’t a problem, it was a real opportunity for us.”

Regardless of Wal-Mart’s intentions, its actions are clearly more important. Not just how they can dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and waste coming from the world’s largest retailer, but also in the way they can influence competitors to follow or be left behind. Home Depot is pushing the green agenda, and in Canada so is hardware/retail rival Canadian Tire (which is not only selling solar and wind products but also beginning to use them for some of their stores). The latest evidence is Canadian retailer and Wal-Mart rival Zellers, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (Canada’s oldest company).

Hudson’s Bay announced today that a new Zellers store in Ontario — in a town called Waterdown — has become its greenest store yet. Two windmills and solar panels are being used to help power the store, which also has a white roof to reflect and disperse heat. The store also features waterless urinals and touchless faucets, sensors that control kitchen exhaust fans, LED lights for inside signage, return programs for recycling plastic bags and batteries, as well as some energy recovery systems.

To top it off, an automated energy management system can be controlled remotely from head office. “The system allows for central control over the timing of indoor and outdoor lights, temperature control, CO2 reduction, humidity control, electricity consumption, remote lighting and more.”

Robert Johnston, president of Hudson’s Bay Company, said the Waterdown store will be a “proving ground” for eco-friendly initiatives that will be considered in other stores over the coming years. “This is one of the many important green initiatives HBC has undertaken in 2007… We have also increased the number of our trucks using biodiesel and undertaken Zero Waste programs at our head offices and seven stores.”

HBC may claim it’s not responding to Wal-Mart, just as much as Canadian Tire might say it’s not responding to Home Depot, but the fact is there’s a competition going on amongst major retailers in North America who want to be perceived as the greenest of them all. They see this as a way to gain a competitive advantage and at the same time lower costs, and perhaps just as important, they see they have no option if they want to stay relevant in a market where green-minded consumers are demanding more.

This is all a very good thing.

Canadian Pacific to gasify old rail ties

Canadian Pacific Railway has announced plans to have 250,000 scrap railroad ties each year ground up and put through a transportable gasification system, which produces gas that will be used to generate electricity. After two years of negotiations the rail giant signed a deal with Aboriginal Cogeneration Corporation (ACC), which plans to begin operating its first gasification plant in Ashcroft, British Columbia, by spring 2008. The company sees it as an opportunity to create local jobs for aboriginal communities across Canada. Plants can range in size from 10 kilowatts to 1 megawatt, and have a relatively clean emissions profile.

Kim Sigurdson, president and co-founder of ACC, said it took a couple of years to demonstrate to Class 1 railway operators in Canada and the United States that the gasification technology works. He said ACC is using technology from a “center of excellence” that has been conducting research into gasification for the U.S. Department of Energy for over 60 years. He wouldn’t name the institution, but I’m guessing it’s a trailer-mounted, “down draft” gasification system developed at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. “They have a number of patents that improve the efficiency of this mobile gasification unit,” said Sigurdson. “ACC is very fortunate to have been given exclusivity to this gasification technology in certain industries that seek a solution to the disposal of various biomass. Railways are one of them.”

It will be interesting to see these systems in action, as there are many applications beyond rail tie disposal where gasification makes sense, assuming it can be done economically. Communities in northern Ontario looking to use forest biofibre for electricity generation are a prime candidate.

Involving cleantech in infrastructure renewal

My Clean Break column in today’s Toronto Star takes a look at some of the barriers to deploying certain renewable technologies, such as low-temperature geothermal, on a wide scale. A report came out last week saying Canadian municipalities would need to spend $123 billion to repair, upgrade, and overhaul public infrastructure. The question is: How are they going to spend that money? Seems to me there could be a huge economic upside, including potential for high-skilled, high-paid job creation, if we planned now to include clean technologies in any infrastructure renewal program.

There’s also the question of updating thousands of buildings built before the 1970s so that they’re more energy efficient. The column, in fact, looks at the role banks could play in making this happen, by providing easy access to capital while making a healthy return on their investment. Geothermal is a prime example, and you’ll see why if you read the column.

Why power freezers when it’s freezing?

The next time you walk into a gas station convenience store during the winter to grab a bottle of soda, consider the various heat stages you go through.

First you’re outside in sub-zero degree temperature. Then you enter a comfortably heated store. Then you approach a freezer where you open a door, reach onto a cold shelf, and grab your frosty bottle. Little do you know that the freezer door is heated to keep from fogging up. Does any of this make sense?

A U.S. company selling a product called the Freeaire Refrigeration System thinks so. It is trying to convince companies with a walk-in freezer, cooler or cold storage that they can dramatically reduce their energy bills by cooling products with outdoor air. The Freeaire system not only brings in air from outside, it balances it with the entire refrigeration system to make sure the temperature is consistent regardless of the weather. In many ways it complements Ice Energy’s Ice Bear system, which works best during warm seasons.

A company called Verta Energy Services distributes the Freeaire product in Canada. So far it has convinced Sunoco to trial the product at one of its gas station stores north of Toronto. Mac’s, a major convenience store retailer in Canada, is also testing out the system at one of its stores in Ontario.

It’s a relatively simple concept. Half the time getting companies to embrace the idea is as easy as getting a company to just think about it. Given time-of-using pricing in Ontario, to be introduced later next year, will put a premium of peak-time electricity use perhaps it’s time that more retailers give it a thought.

Why power freezers when it’s freezing?

The next time you walk into a gas station convenience store during the winter to grab a bottle of soda, consider the various heat stages you go through.

First you’re outside in sub-zero degree temperature. Then you enter a comfortably heated store. Then you approach a freezer where you open a door, reach onto a cold shelf, and grab your frosty bottle. Little do you know that the freezer door is heated to keep from fogging up. Does any of this make sense?

A U.S. company selling a product called the Freeaire Refrigeration System thinks so. It is trying to convince companies with a walk-in freezer, cooler or cold storage that they can dramatically reduce their energy bills by cooling products with outdoor air. The Freeaire system not only brings in air from outside, it balances it with the entire refrigeration system to make sure the temperature is consistent regardless of the weather. In many ways it complements Ice Energy’s Ice Bear system, which works best during warm seasons.

A company called Verta Energy Services distributes the Freeaire product in Canada. So far it has convinced Sunoco to trial the product at one of its gas station stores north of Toronto. Mac’s, a major convenience store retailer in Canada, is also testing out the system at one of its stores in Ontario.

It’s a relatively simple concept. Half the time getting companies to embrace the idea is as easy as getting a company to just think about it. Given time-of-using pricing in Ontario, to be introduced later next year, will put a premium of peak-time electricity use perhaps it’s time that more retailers give it a thought.