National Geographic News
Photo of a solar and wind energy farm in California.

New executive actions include support for more training for workers in solar power. This solar and wind energy farm is in Desert Hot Springs, California.

Photograph by Ben Horton, National Geographic Creative

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published May 9, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions to promote energy efficiency and so-called green jobs on Friday, though some environmentalists said the changes were relatively minor, and took aim at Obama's choice of venue for the announcement, a Walmart store.

Obama announced more than a half-dozen actions to support training for workers in solar power, require higher efficiency for industrial-quality equipment and appliances from escalators to walk-in refrigerators, adjust building codes to reduce emissions from new construction, and bolster energy efficiency in federal buildings through $2 billion in improvements.

The president's new initiatives "will help cut pollution by more than 380 million metric tons of carbon, save businesses nearly $26 billion on their energy bills [by 2030], and support worker-training programs across the country," said Dan Utech, a special assistant to the president on energy and climate change, during a conference call previewing Friday's announcement.

The White House says the long-term savings of such measures will justify their upfront costs. The actions also come just days after the Executive Branch released the National Climate Assessment, a major report on the impacts climate change are already having on the country. (See "Federal Climate Change Report Highlights Risks for Americans.")

Andrew deLaski, director of appliance standards at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), calls Obama's new standards "good news for the environment."

The actions "will make U.S. businesses and industry more competitive, strengthening the U.S. economy and creating jobs," he said.

But Stan Cox, author of several books on energy and climate, said that Obama's actions were likely "going to have a relatively small effect compared to the size of the problem."

"I hope this is going to soften people up for something bigger later [such as new rules for power plant emissions that are expected in June], but it's a difficult situation," he said. "Because, despite what a lot of people say, if we really are going to make a big enough difference in the momentum of carbon accumulation, it will take sacrifice."

Cox says that would require hard limits on emissions from power plants and other industrial activities as well as a decrease in overall consumption of material goods.

Right Choice of Venue?

The president announced the new efficiency rules from a Walmart in Mountain View, California, in Silicon Valley, where he has been on a fund-raising trip.

The president said Walmart was chosen to highlight the company's use of solar energy, and to celebrate the fact that the specific store had replaced lightbulbs with LEDs, added charging stations for electric vehicles, and installed solar panels on its roof a few years ago.

According to Walmart, about 24 percent of the company's total global energy use is sourced from renewable energy, when the contribution of renewables into the grid is factored in.

By the end of 2013, Walmart had more than 335 renewable energy projects in operation or under development around the globe, with the capacity to provide more than 2.2 billion kilowatt hours of renewable electricity annually, according to the company. Walmart also recently committed to sourcing 7 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy globally by December 31, 2020.

But the environmental website Grist took issue with the choice of Walmart as a venue to discuss renewable energy, calling it "baffling and disconcerting."

Walmart sources only 3 percent of the energy for its U.S. operations from renewables, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Grist said.

That puts it far behind such retailers as Kohl's, which gets 105 percent of its power from renewable sources; Whole Foods (107 percent); Staples (106 percent); and McDonald's (30 percent), according to a list maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency. Overall in the U.S., about 2 percent of all power comes from renewable sources.

Kory Lundberg, a spokesperson for Walmart, told National Geographic that he thought the EPA's 3 percent figure came from only a few states, and that the current total for the company's U.S. operations "is higher."

"Walmart is the largest onsite producer of solar energy in the U.S., and that's our focus," he added. "Some of the other guys pay others to do [solar energy], but we focus on how we can generate it and make it more viable."

Walmart's overall emissions rose 2 percent, or more than 500,000 metric tons, last year, Grist said.

For its part, Walmart says on its website that its efforts to use more renewable energy "are not only good for the environment, but they also keep prices low for customers."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Frank Papasavas
Frank Papasavas

Global warming is a fact of life. Unfortunately, we in the United States can do everything we can think of to reduce emissions, solar, wind geothermal, etc and it won't make much of an impact. Their are 7 billion other people on the planet, two billion cows, 250 trillion termites, God only knows how many ant's and we all produce methane, CO2. It is not going to get better regardless of how many Tesla cars we drive. Humans had better start adapting, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Anthony Mariano
Anthony Mariano

just drove from LA to Palm Desert last week... took I-10.... driving along looking at the mountains.... the all of a sudden in the distance ruining the view were all these windmills.... looked like a slum area..... the amount of garbage on the highway was high and the roads need repairing... WHAT ARE THEY DOING WITH ALL THE TAXES THEY COLLECT????

Why were only 60% turning???  most pointed the same direction..... ODD.

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

In Obama's remaining years as President he needs to press the climate change issue just as hard as he can.  Vested interest front groups like heartland and donorstrust are still trying to inject public doubt where no reasonable scientific doubt exists.  Their motives are profit-driven whereas Obama's are in the interest of safeguarding vulnerable global populations and infrastructures.

More of us need to get active.  Apathy/inaction effectively advocates for more of the same destructive behaviors.  Make sure your reps in Congress aren't among the obstructionists catering to vested interests.  They are willing to turn their backs on our future generations to keep their sponsors happy.  They need to be replaced with lawmakers that put the people's health and security first.



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