Wal-Mart renews green pledge at S.F. forum 

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) renewed its pledge to seek more sustainable building materials as it rolls out 300 new stores a year, sparking excitement among firms seeking venture-capital backing at the Cleantech Forum XII conference in San Francisco.

"We are in this seriously," Directorof Architecture Bill Correll said Wednesday, as he outlined the world’s largest retailer’s plan to reduce its stores’ energy expenditure by 20 percent within seven years in existing stores, and 25 percent to 30 percent in prototype stores.

The plan involves two experimental stores, one in McKinney, Texas, and one in Aurora, Colo., where the company is trying out a number of power-saving and other eco-friendlier initiatives. Another experiment, collecting rainwater for use in landscaping and other nonpotable uses, is planned for a new Sam’s Club store under construction in Fayetteville, Ark. Correll said the company plans a major announcement on water usage soon.

The move highlights the importance of water conservation and ongoing corporate discussions about capitalizing on water, a popular topic at the conference.

"Water is going from a free resource to a commodity with a value," said Russell Landon, a managing director of financial service firm Canaccord Adams, in a panel discussion.

Low-power LED lighting in refrigeration and freezer cases is the first initiative from the experimental stores that will be rolled out companywide, Correll said. He estimated energy savings of 50 percent compared with conventional fluorescent lighting in the cases, and that they also create less heat that needs to be countered by refrigeration. To the interest of entrepreneurs, Wal-Mart is seeking greener technology throughout its construction.

"We are on the lookout for materials that have great potential for us, that do not have an increase in cost, or that have a return on investment over its lifecycle," Correll said. "Our rollout program is on the order of 300 stores a year (with 400 to 500 existing stores also being remodeled or upgraded)."

Correll was swamped with entrepreneurs ready to discuss their products after his talk. The forum provides what many described as the premier meeting ground for "clean technology" firms and venture capitalists to meet, and many of the conference presenters were there to seek millions to establish factories, roll out products and the like.

"The materials that we manufacture are something I’m sure they’re interested in," said Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials of Sunnyvale. His 75-person firm is seeking $30 million for a plant to manufacture EcoRock, a new type of drywall that bakes itself without energy input. Approximately 200 million tons of carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere annually because of drywall production, Surace said. The profitable company already sells other drywall products that muffle sound.

Zach Gentry, CEO of San Francisco’s Adura Technologies, said his firm’s overhead-lighting control systems aren’t aligned with Wal-Mart’s LED case program, but it hopes for future opportunities with Wal-Mart. Its first installations will be going into the University of California at Berkeley.

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