GM Has Become an ‘Energy Star’ with Efficiency and Circular Programs

(Photo: Chevrolet Bolt EV autonomous test vehicles are assembled at General Motors Orion Assembly in Orion Township, Michigan. Credit: Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors)

by | May 13, 2022

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(Photo: Chevrolet Bolt EV autonomous test vehicles are assembled at General Motors Orion Assembly in Orion Township, Michigan. Credit: Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors)

General Motors has been making cars for more than a century. It has more than 30 manufacturing facilities in the United States. Two are in Michigan, and others are in Ohio, Indiana, New York, Texas, Missouri, and Maryland. In 2009, the company declared bankruptcy. When it emerged, it committed to not just making cars and trucks that the public wanted but to doing so in an environmentally friendly manner. That meant going headfirst into energy efficiency and buying renewable energy. And it also meant dedicating itself to the circular economy. 

The bottom line is that GM must achieve a payback on these pursuits. For example, it is involved in the Energy Savings Project Initiative, and in recent years, it has funded it to the tune of $20 million. In 2008, GM joined the Department of Energy’s Leader program, promising to reduce its vehicle energy intensity by 20%.  And the carmaker also has a zero-waste initiative to divert more than 90% of its manufacturing waste from landfills and incineration globally by 2025. Finally, GM has a goal of being carbon neutral by 2040. 

“People care about more than the cars. They care about how we build them and how we engage with the world around us. GM has made public environmental commitments because meeting these goals is the right thing to do for our environment and our economy.”

The carmaker has been working with the Energy Department to achieve its energy efficiency goals. It has won its Energy Star challenge multiple years. Indeed, cutting energy costs is the low-hanging fruit; it is easier to find energy savings than find new customers or cut labor costs. For such efforts to work, the Energy Department says that all hands must be on deck — everyone from the C-suite to the rank-and-file on the shop floor. And each person must be able to identify places where energy costs can be trimmed. 

Indeed, the Energy Department says the energy targets were shown on notice boards at every investigated plant. Projects typically originate from the on-site utility manager and energy engineers. They identify tasks that the corporate-level energy efficiency team must approve. If Energy Savings Project Initiative funds the projects, they must have a two-year payback. 

GM focuses on energy intensity 

For 10-years running, GM has won the Energy Star award. Winners have committed to fighting climate change and protecting public health through energy efficiency and are among the nation’s leaders in driving value for the environment, the economy, and the American people.

“We work to integrate sustainable practices in everything we do, prioritizing efforts to reduce energy consumption and energy intensity across our operations to help reduce our environmental impact,” said GM Chief Sustainability Officer Kristen Siemen.

In 2010, GM committed to a 20% reduction in carbon intensity by 2020. It achieved that goal in 2017. And in January 2021, GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra announced accelerated energy goals, including sourcing 100% renewable energy to power GM facilities in the U.S. by 2030 and globally by 2035. The company recently announced plans to become carbon neutral in its global products and operations by 2040 and its aspiration to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035.

General Motors says it will be carbon neutral by 2040 — an effort underscored by its commitment to science-based targets. Targets are ‘science-based’ if they follow the guidelines of the Paris climate agreement — ones that limit temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius by mid-century. A critical path for it is to decarbonize the cars it makes. That is, it will focus exclusively on electric vehicles by 2035.

GM is investing $27 billion in electric and autonomous vehicles in the next five years – up from the $20 billion in 2020. This investment includes the continued development of GM’s Ultium battery technology. This is a joint venture between GM and LG Energy Solutions to build a gigafactory in Ohio to make batteries. A second plant is also planned for Tennessee. The plants will follow guidelines to comply with the circular economy in all cases. 

“GM’s zero-waste initiative aims to divert more than 90% of its manufacturing waste from landfills and incineration globally by 2025,” says Ken Morris, vice president of electric vehicles.

GM says that it will also rely on buying carbon credits. That can include anything from planting trees and saving rainforests to enabling the development of wind and solar plants. It says that it will use those credits sparingly. 

Key Steps to Getting There

According to GM’s sustainability report, it uses Energy Star to reduce its energy intensity, organizes and motivates employees to find ways to save energy and money, and collaborates with major stakeholders. 

Sustain Case summarized those efforts. By using Energy Star, GM can benchmark its progress and make improvements. For example, it adopted a new paint process that uses 40% less energy per vehicle. It also deployed technology to shut down unused equipment automatically. And it replaced existing lights with LEDs. In addition, GM enrolled all its global manufacturing facilities in the ENERGY STAR Challenge for Industry, which calls for industrial sites to reduce energy intensity by 10% over five years.

One of the ways GM finds energy savings is by sponsoring “energy treasure hunts” led by employees in the field and on the floor. Participants will visit facilities while they are operating and when they are closed. After close observation, it will propose ways to run them more efficiently. In 2017, GM organized 10 treasure hunts in India, Korea, North America, and Thailand. The team focused on improving the painting process and using compressed air. It identified 41 opportunities for improvement, implementing most of those and saving the company $5 million a year.

GM understands that its business extends beyond the company’s boundaries and into the broader communities where it operates. To that end, it works closely with the Environmental Defense Fund. In 2017, some EDF fellows saved the company $383,000 a year at a paint shop. How? Installing motion-sensing light switches in areas with low foot traffic and creating a checklist for operators to follow at the end of shifts. The fellows also suggested putting equipment into maintenance mode, which uses less power when not in use.

“We will source 100 percent of our facilities’ electricity from renewables by 2040 globally, and by 2030 in the U.S,” says CEO Mary Bars, in the sustainability report. “By 2025, we will be 60 percent of the way toward our global goal. And in partnership with our suppliers, we are establishing a sustainable material target of at least 50 percent by 2030 for all our vehicles.”

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