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Wal-Mart's newest store in McKinney, Texas, is not like the others. The Supercenter was designed from the start as a testing ground for a variety of energy-saving technologies and practices. As Bill Zeeble of member station KERA reports, Wal-Mart's goal is to find out just how much it can cut costs.
BILL ZEEBLE reporting:
At 200,000 square feet, McKinney's latest Wal-Mart is larger than most other Supercenters. The big box also seems to beckon from a distance. Giant propeller blades spin 120 feet above the parking lot, generating power from the wind.
Mr. GUS WHITCOMB (Corporate Affairs Director, Wal-Mart, North Texas): This device is actually going to help us provide electrical power to the store.
ZEEBLE: Gus Whitcomb, Wal-Mart's corporate affairs director for north Texas, says in addition to the 50-kilowatt wind turbine, the store's also experimenting with solar panels, walkway tiles made from recycled tires and special ceramic paint on the building's sunniest side.
Mr. WHITCOMB: As the sun comes down and hits this paint, it will actually reflect off the wall away from the building. And this is superimportant to us because behind this wall is where all the refrigeration equipment is.
ZEEBLE: The freezer and refrigeration sections inside boast rooftop cooling systems requiring 40-percent less copper tubing and refrigerant. For heat in winter, there's a natural gas system, but also a special boiler. Standing in front of it, Don Moseley, Wal-Mart's experimental projects manager, says it burns an unusual mix of oils.
Mr. DON MOSELEY (Experimental Projects Manager, Wal-Mart): So we're taking oils from our automotive center oil changes. We got a 2,000-gallon tank sitting here, which is the oil coming out of your cars. That oil is being burned in this boiler. The biofuel boiler--it also can burn the oil from the deli. That unit sitting over there mixes the deli oil and the automotive oil.
ZEEBLE: Wal-Mart uses a biofuel boiler in another store, but this is the first to mix motor and vegetable oils. At $14,000, it's more than triple the cost of a conventional burner. It'll take at least a dozen years to pay for itself, just like the wind turbine. Dallas Sustainable Energy architect Gary Olp, who's impressed by the store overall, says these two experiments may be for show.
Mr. GARY OLP (Architect, Dallas Sustainable Energy): The trouble is north Texas, particularly northeast Texas--we just don't have enough constant wind velocity to justify wind turbines. And I think the boiler and using the oils is a great technology. In this store, it may be a bit of a demonstration. What they may find--`Let's do this. This makes good economic sense. But it doesn't make economic sense for us to put a boiler in Dallas, Texas. Let's just capture those recyclables, carry them north to our stores in the north and use them there to heat.'
ZEEBLE: Olp says this Wal-Mart experiment is important whatever it finds because others will follow. They did when Wal-Mart added skylights for more natural light, resulting in higher customer satisfaction and spending.
Mr. OLP: And I think if people see windmills, if they see that a turbine in a parking lot really doesn't make a lot of noise and that it doesn't kill eagles, well, maybe they'll be a bit more receptive to have them. They're making the effort to see if these things make good economic sense.
ZEEBLE: And Wal-Mart will publish the results of its 26 indoor and eight outdoor experiments online over the next three years.
The company's also building a green store in Colorado to compare the same sustainable energy projects in a cold climate. It may decide against some technologies, but those it likes could appear in future Wal-Marts here and abroad or be retrofitted into existing stores. For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.
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