GE launched its ecomagination project back in 2005 to propel the company into leadership status in the emerging sustainable technology marketplace. As far as the company is concerned, it has been a resounding success. According to GE’s new ecomagination progress report, sales and services revenues associated with the project have reached about $105 billion.
The success of ecomagination adds a new dimension to the Biblical passage inscribed on the old GE building in New York City, “wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy time – Isaiah 33:6″ New knowledge is bringing about an accelerating pace of change, so it seems that now more than ever change is the only certain thing, especially when companies like GE are devoting considerable resources to revving things up even faster.
Ecomagination and innovation
The basic concept behind ecomagination is fairly straightforward. According to GE, it provides the company with a strategic focus on “innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges while driving economic growth.”
At its heart is an “open innovation” approach that encourages cooperative ventures and partnerships with other innovators, which GE is supporting with a planned $10 billion investment in research and development over the next ten years.
In this regard, ecomagination taps into a form of discovery that is at odds with the stereotype of lone scientists working in isolated laboratories. You can see echoes of it in the increasing number of crowd-sourced projects and competitions in the technology sector.
Another manifestation is the growing emphasis on team-based learning in U.S. high schools., in a more intensive and sophisticated form than the “group projects” that have always been a mainstay of public education.
Transitioning to new energy solutions
Though the ecomagination concept focuses on innovation, it also underscores the importance of transitional solutions that leverage existing fuel sources and infrastructure.
One good example is GE’s multi-fuel power plant that shifts seamlessly between natural gas and renewable energy including wind and solar, depending on demand and availability.
Similarly, last year the ecomagination portfolio added a software tool called RailEdge Movement Planner®, which helps companies move their freight more effectively on the existing railway infrastructure. According to GE, nationwide adoption of the software could save about 37 million gallons of diesel fuel annually.
The 2011 ecomagination progress report also highlights GE’s fleet electrification initiatives, which include a heavy dose of public outreach. In order to give commercial customers hands-on time with EV’s, the company is opening “Experience Center” educational facilities (the first one is set to open this year in Minnesota).
Internalizing sustainable business operations
GE has also leveraged ecomagination to improve the efficiencies of its own operations. Two highlights here are a steep decline in greenhouse gas emissions compared to a 2004 baseline, and an even steeper drop-off in fresh water use.
The progress on greenhouse gas emissions parallels a decline in the company’s energy use of 19 percent compared to an adjusted 2004 baseline.
Though part of the savings derives from technology improvements, GE uses the ecomagination progress report to underscore the importance of employee engagement and learning from other companies:
“Leveraging lessons from Toyota and other leaders in energy management, we have trained more than 6,000 employees to identify and quantify opportunities for energy use reduction. Over a three-day period, employees compile an itemized list of opportunities that include energy and GHG reduction benefits, cost savings and return on investment. Leaders in the local operations use these lists to implement projects that save costs and reduce energy use. Using employees, aligned with experts from GE’s Global Research Center, sales teams from our technology offerings, and external support personnel, also helps to drive awareness and a change in energy use culture.”
Building new energy coalitions
Ecomagination has also provided GE with a platform for combining forces with other major companies to jumpstart the mass market for electric vehicles. Its financing arm, GE Capital, is a member of the Electrification Leadership Council, which was formed earlier this year to help urban-centered commercial fleets make the switch to electric vehicles.
Other well known stakeholders in the public-private partnership include FedEx, Hertz, Navistar, Azure Dynamics, the advanced battery company A123 Systems, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and ECOtality.
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