How General Motors Reduces Water Use: Tactics from Global Energy Manager Al Hindreth

(Credit: General Motors 2019 Sustainability Report)

by | Apr 12, 2021

(Credit: General Motors 2019 Sustainability Report)

General Motors recently announced plans to reduce the water intensity of its operations by 35% by 2035, compared to a 2010 baseline. While the company is not “overtly water intensive,” General Motors says it is constantly finding ways to drive resource efficiency and implement new solutions, particularly in water-stressed regions. Environment + Energy Leader caught up with Al Hindreth, General Motors’ global energy manager, to learn how the company is successfully reducing water usage.

When you first made the pledge to reduce water usage, how did you get started?

Before we could even set our goals, we had to set a baseline. And the only way we could do that is to have good data and know how many cubic meters of water we were using per vehicle. We had to measure it, set a baseline, and start tracking it from there. Once you know where you are [with water use], you can manage it.

You mentioned that General Motors worked with a provider to build a custom management system to take a data-driven approach to water management. How exactly does that help you reduce water usage?

We use an advanced water management data system that is very similar to our energy management system. We must know where water is used, and how much, and we look at water use on an hourly or even minute-by-minute basis. I don’t want to look at our scorecard at the end of the month and find out we have a problem.

By using a data-driven approach, we can see, for example, that there might be large water use when we’re not producing any vehicles. We say, “Everything should be shut off. There’s a leak somewhere.” Having data is really important to be able to do that. Data also helps us to prioritize where we look for ways to reduce water use.

Can you give me an example of a successful water reduction project and how you implemented it?

An extreme way to minimize water use is to reuse it. At the San Luis Potosí Assembly plant in Mexico, we pump water out of 600-meter-deep wells. It’s a desert there and there’s not much water. In a typical plant, we discharge water into the municipal sewer system, but decided not to do that at the San Luis Potosí plant. Instead, we capture all the water we use, clean it up with a reverse osmosis system, and put it back into the industrial water system.

The Zero Liquid Discharge system purifies and transforms wastewater into reusable water for the facility’s paint and machining processes, as well as for irrigation.

Have you saved money on the project?

Any time you want to spend more money, that’s always a challenge, but when we build a plant, one of the key things we look at is water supply. We use an aqueduct system from the WRI that tells us what areas are water stressed. So spending is always a challenge but it’s imperative that you do it.

And the added cost minimizes our risk because the wells are non-renewable. There’s not an easy path to get the water back. The zero liquid discharge system minimizes our reliance on well-water withdrawal.

We do save some money, but it would be difficult to justify it on payback alone. If I was doing the project in Michigan, I might not spend the money to clean up the water. [In Michigan], we reduce water use by reusing it in our cooling towers, for example. But in Mexico, where water is really stressed, where the aquifer feeds not only the plant but the community, [the Zero Liquid Discharge system] is pretty important.

How does General Motors focus on reducing water usage beyond your own plants?

We do a lifecycle analysis of our supply chain for water. Water usage in our supply chain is many orders of magnitude more than our own. We looked at industries like electricity and cotton farming to see where they are most water-intensive. Then we expand our goal to our supply chain, to work with suppliers to reduce their energy and water consumption.

What expertise would you share with other companies working to minimize their own water usage?

One of our key success factors is the fact that we integrated water into our business plan. You can’t just do one water efficiency project and that’s it. You have to have ongoing continuous improvement. We have a “business plan deployment board.” If it’s in the business plan, it’s on the board. We have it at four or five different levels, where it’s in everyone’s face, and everyone can see, “Am I red? Am I green? If I’m red, how do I get back to green?”

Where you really get the engagement with employees is the level four or five board. That’s their team board, and if they see a leak, they can fix it. We also send daily emails to plants to say how they’re performing.

Then there are tools like our water usage treasure hunts. Those are a lot of fun and they’re a great way to engage employees, to identify water efficiency opportunities and ways to implement them. And you can train employees [on water management] while you’re on the treasure hunt.

You must make these strategies a standard part of your business.

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