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Talking Carbon Reduction with GM’s Sustainability Chief

RP Siegel | Wednesday February 6th, 2013 | 2 Comments

Last week Chevrolet’s Carbon Reduction Initiative announced a Chevy CO2 reduction infomajor milestone, achieving 7 million metric tons of carbon reduction, as they work towards their target of 8 million. I followed up by phone with David Tulauskas, GM’s Director of Sustainability and Manager of the Chevy initiative.

What apparently pushed them over the 7 million ton line, was an agreement to purchase carbon credits from IdleAir, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based company that makes an innovative Advanced Travel Center Electrification service available for long-haul truckers. IdleAir provides parking stations that truckers can pull up to at night or during rest stops. They provide electricity, heating and cooling, as well as Internet and Satellite TV, a bit like civilization in a box. Using these stations eliminates the need for truckers to idle their engines during these rest stops thereby savings thousand of pounds of carbon emissions in the process. It is estimated that a typical tractor-trailer uses one gallon of diesel fuel per hour when idling, which translates into a little over 22 pounds of CO2. There are roughly two million tractor-trailers operating on American roads.

According to David, “IdleAir is our attempt to move away from traditional sources of carbon credit and to support and encourage more innovative ways to reduce carbon and go beyond business as usual.”

Other projects Chevy has invested in include forest management projects in Pennsylvania and California and a wind farm in Oklahoma.

TriplePundit: Can you put the IdleAir investment in context for me?

David Tulauskas: The Chevy Carbon Reduction Initiative is really about taking our environmental progress on the vehicle side, and on the plant side a step further and proving our commitment in new and innovative ways that have direct impacts on communities across the country. For every single project we decide to invest in, we not only look at carbon reductions, but also the impact that they’re having on a community, and the technology that we may be supporting or incentivizing. This is something that if IdleAir or any other company could equip truck stops across the nation with to help them avoid idling, we would displace a lot of fuel and avoid a lot of carbon emissions.

3p: Are they looking to use renewable energy?

DT: They are beginning to construct some of their facilities using solar powered electricity. But often these drivers are connecting to these stations at night, using off-peak power, which is actually when a lot of renewable energy is on the grid. They are also installing overhead trusses on some of these stations with solar panels on them.

3p: I notice that most of these initiatives seem to have an economic component to them, like for example, there are forest protection programs here, but they all contain some resource management element. Is that kind of underlying theme for the program?

DT: We look at it in terms of making positive impacts at a community level. Take the Gualala River forest management project in California. Not only is that providing conservation-type benefits, but downstream there is a town that relies on the water. So by managing that forest appropriately, we are also protecting the water resource for that community. We’re looking at conservation initiatives, we’re looking at energy efficiency, we’re looking at renewables and then, new innovative approaches to reducing carbon, that all have some sort of measurable impact on the community.

3p: How much investment are we talking about here?

DT: We’re planning to invest up to $40 million on this 5-year project, between 2010-2014. By that time, we hope to have booked 8 million metric tons of carbon.

3p: Can you help me understand this effort in the context of GM’s overall sustainability strategy?

DT: Traditionally, companies have been considered great if they delivered great quarterly results. Going forward, greatness is going to depend not only on financial results, but on their environmental and social performance. That’s how we’re approaching it at GM. This is about top-line growth opportunities, bottom line improvements and risk mitigation that delivers long term stakeholder value in a responsible manner.

For Chevy, in particular, this is really just a natural extension of their history of environmental and innovative initiative including the Chevrolet Volt, our ecologic label that Chevy puts on every vehicle, [which states the vehicle’s environmental impact] to the Chevrolet Spark electric vehicle that’s coming out this summer. Chevrolet has taken the approach that says, there are lots of challenges out there, we need innovative solutions and we need to go beyond business-as-usual. We need to go beyond just fuel-efficient vehicles and plants that don’t send any waste to landfills in order to engage this growing base of educated concerned consumers. We want to go into communities in a very positive way, and change people’s perception of Chevrolet.

3p: So each of these brands will approach the question of the triple bottom line in their own unique way?

DT: Yes, exactly. Chevrolet is going to be very much up front, direct, with your traditional environmental activities and electric vehicles and they are going to talk about the environmental benefits that result from those vehicles. Now, Cadillac, on the other hand, just announced the ELR , an extended range electric vehicle that’s going to be available a little later this year, but Cadillac’s going to take a different approach at marketing and engaging its consumers in talking about the environmental benefit in a different way that supports its brand, of trying to be the standard of the world in exclusive luxury.

3p: So it sounds like you have really begun to embrace electric vehicles.

DT: We have. Our Chevrolet electric Spark is an electric vehicle that will have one of the longest ranges available in the market, but its torque is going to be 450 ft-lbs. That’s basically the torque of a V8 engine, which makes it really fun to drive. It is going to delight consumers, and that’s what’s going to win in the marketplace.

3p: Sounds great. Anything else you’d like to add?

DT: You talk about all this stuff that’s going on; the thing I’m most excited about is high schoolers and college students. They get this. We don’t have to be change agents for them. They just wake up every day thinking about this stuff, and that is powerful to think about the next five to fifteen years, when these folks are starting their own companies or entering the work force. We’re already on a really fast curve of change, but I think this is really going to accelerate with this new generation of Gen Y’ers and Millennials coming into the work force.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/godelnik Raz Godelnik

    It’s great to learn about the new updates in Chevrolet’s carbon offsetting initiative, but I still have doubts regarding the value of this initiative as it doesn’t really address any of the company’s environmental or social impacts. Wouldn’t it make more economic/sustainable sense to invest the $40 million in reducing GM’s carbon footprint rather than offsetting it?

    • RPSiegel

      We’re only looking at a small portion of the forest here. Chevy Volt drivers have now logged some 100 million miles, 65% of which were all-electric. Compared with gas @ 20mpg that’s a combined savings of over 50,000 metric tons of carbon. Not bad for a product line that is just starting to catch on. To put this all in perspective, GM spent $6.96 Billion on R&D in 2010. That’s 174 times as much as they spent on Chevy’s external carbon reduction investment program described here. Of course, they’re still selling some gas-guzzlers too (though they guzzle less than they used to).