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Wal-Mart boosts on-store solar with thin-film tech

Retail giant expands its solar program with panels from First Solar and MiaSole, giving a boost to thin-film technology at businesses. SolarCity will install, finance, and own the panels.

Retail juggernaut Wal-Mart is using panels from First Solar and MiaSole in what is expected to be one of the largest business installations of thin-film solar technology.

Wal-Mart on Monday said that it is adding solar panels at between 20 and 30 store locations in California and Arizona, building on the 31 stores in California and Hawaii already equipped with on-site solar. The majority of the new installations will use thin-film solar panels, a technology a number of companies are developing to undercut traditional silicon cells on price.

First Solar's cadmium telluride panels have been available for years and are widely used, often by utilities. But Walmart also plans to use panels from MiaSole, an upstart supplier of panels with cells made from another thin-film material--a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenide (CIGS). Wal-Mart's adoption of CIGS panels could help scale up the technology and bring it to business customers quicker, the company said.

Thin-film panels from MiaSole will be used at Wal-Mart stores, a vote of confidence from a corporate customer on CIGS technology.
Thin-film panels from MiaSole will be used at Wal-Mart stores, a vote of confidence from a corporate customer on CIGS technology. MiaSole

The latest solar project will generate up to 22.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to power 1,750 homes. Each installation will produce around 20 percent to 30 percent of a store's power usage.

In each case, Wal-Mart is contracting with SolarCity, which installs, finances, and owns the solar arrays. Rather than purchase the panels, Wal-Mart will buy the power produced from the panels, which will be maintained by SolarCity. Getting electricity from the solar arrays at a predetermined fixed price lowers the Wal-Mart's energy price risk, said vice president of energy Kim Saylors Laster, in a statement.

Wal-Mart began its solar program three years ago and has since launched a number of green-technology initiatives at its stores. It is testing small-wind turbines and fuel cells at stores and has contracted to buy wind energy from a wind farm in Texas.

Updated at 8:58 a.m. PT with corrected figure for the number of yearly kilowatt-hours expected.