Amazon’s Solar Promise

The online retail giant’s rooftop solar pledge is good for wildlife and the climate (but there’s a long way to go)

An Amazon fulfillment center (Credit: Phil_Parker/Flickr.com)

On Amazon you can buy everything from a raincoat for your dog to a multi-pack of crochet hooks (two of my most recent purchases), many of which can make it to your door in just a few days. All those online orders need to be sorted and shipped from somewhere, and that’s where the online retailer’s massive fulfillment centers come in. These warehouses have some of the largest land footprints of any buildings in the world. In the United States alone, Amazon’s giant fulfillment centers take up a total land area 10 times the size of Disneyland. And Amazon is a company known for its rapid growth, in both its slice of the retail market as well as its land footprint.

That expansive land use has a big effect on the environment, especially when you consider what it takes to run such large warehouses. In order to power these operations, Amazon has relied heavily on fossil fuels and some large-scale renewable sources. That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity launched our Amazon Shine campaign a year ago, calling on the company to install rooftop solar and utilize the space it’s already taking up with its warehouses to produce solar power.

From the Center for Biological Diversity’s Amazon Shine campaign

Over 23,000 Center members and supporters sent letters to CEO Jeff Bezos asking Amazon put solar panels on these warehouses. And late this past week, Amazon announced it will install solar panels on 15 of its U.S.-based fulfillment centers by the end of the year. Those panels will provide around 80 percent of the energy needed to operate the facilities — the equivalent of powering approximately 7,000 homes. The company also committed to installing solar on 50 of its global facilities by 2020.

That commitment is a solid first step toward an energy future that’s better for wildlife, people and the planet. Rooftop solar places the power source right where the energy is used, eliminating the need for transmission lines and resultant land fragmentation. It decreases our dependence on fossil fuels and empowers companies to take ownership of their energy production. It also means that less space is needed for power facilities, saving space for the habitats and wild places that are too quickly lost to human development.

And Amazon is joining other big companies embracing rooftop solar. Ikea already has rooftop solar on nearly 90 percent of its locations in the U.S. Big companies like these need to make sure their energy choices not only help to reduce their carbon footprint, but also consider their land use footprint — utilizing the space they already occupy before building out additional infrastructure to meet their energy needs.

Corporate leadership on solar investment is important, not just to reduce the environmental footprints of individual companies but also to make it easier for everyone to go solar. While solar prices are dropping consistently every year, they’re still too high for most Americans. It will take widespread buy-in from companies that have the upfront capital — particularly in states with poor incentive programs — in order for solar markets to grow and installation prices to drop to a point where solar is accessible for the average citizen.

Amazon’s recent rooftop solar commitment is a step in the right direction, but the job is far from done. Amazon has about 95 warehouses and 29 additional regional sorting centers in the United States, along with nearly 150 internationally. If Amazon really wants to shine, it should build on its commitment until every one of its facilities has rooftop solar. Other companies should follow suit so that going solar is no longer a headline, but just a part of the bottom line.

Greer Ryan is the sustainability research associate at the Center for Biological Diversity.