Whirlpool Corp. is building a strong corporate social responsibility profile, and its latest venture demonstrates how American manufacturers can save jobs with clean power. The company just broke ground on three new wind turbines that will enable its Marion, Ohio, plant to run on 19 percent wind energy while saving on overhead. The move will help Whirlpool stay competitive and keep production jobs in the U.S.
The new turbines also demonstrate that the bottom line will continue to propel decarbonization, even though the incoming Trump administration plans to cut pollution regulations set in motion under President Barack Obama.
Three new wind turbines for Whirlpool
One interesting aspect of the new wind power project is that the turbines will be located on the factory site and provide power directly. They will also double as a powerful branding statement.
The company’s director of global sustainability, Ron Voglewede, explained how the visual impact of three massive wind turbines enhances the Whirlpool name:
“We’re always exploring cutting edge technologies that will bring us closer to accomplishing our sustainability goals. We’re excited to bring a local focus for our global commitment to sustainability here in the Marion community and throughout Ohio, where we have significant investments in employees and facilities.”
The direct-to-factory model for renewable energy also provides Whirlpool with a strong story for customers who look for sustainability markers in their home appliances.
In a press release announcing the new turbines, Whirlpool noted that the Marion project is just part of a broader on-site wind energy plan.
The company has two wind turbines at its nearby Findlay plant up and running, and another wind project is under way at a Whirlpool facility in Ottawa.
Aside from clean energy, other recent CSR efforts by Whirlpool include a long-term relationship with Habitat for Humanity. The company has also donated washers and dryers for an innovative project aimed at boosting school attendance.
The wind power bottom line
The big question is: Why would Whirlpool bother to invest in building its own turbines? The U.S. Midwest has become a hotbed of wind energy development, and opportunities are growing to plug into a grid mix that includes wind power.
That’s a good question, and the company One Energy has the answer.
The wind developer One Energy is Whirlpool’s partner in the project, and the company makes a good pitch for its Wind for Industry on-site turbine package:
“One Energy provides the services to harness the wind resource you already own. When you own your wind, you will not only reduce your energy costs today, but you will protect your company from electric rate increases in the future.”
To sweeten the pot, One Energy offers to finance the turbines through a Power Purchase Agreement. Under a PPA, One Energy takes complete responsibility for installing the turbines. The site owner simply pays for electricity generated by the turbines at a pre-determined, long term rate.
Cutting jobs, with automation
Back in 2009, Whirlpool acquired Maytag and cut about 3,000 total jobs. In 2010 it moved about 1,000 jobs from Indiana to Mexico.
Since then, the company has brought jobs back to the U.S. from Mexico but in a trickle, not a flood.
In 2013, for example, Whirlpool shifted some of its washing machine production from a facility in Mexico to one in Clyde, Ohio. The move brought about 80 to 100 new employees to the Ohio plant.
Wages at the U.S. facility were about five times more than in Mexico, but the company cited three main factors that shifted the bottom-line balance in favor of U.S. production.
Shipping costs would be lower, for one thing. Another major factor was the lower cost of electricity in Clyde.
And, the third factor was automation. The Clyde plant demonstrates Whirlpool’s “smart automation” strategy for competitive manufacturing in the U.S.
The automation angle is relevant to Trump’s Carrier deal: In a widely reported interview last week, the chairman and CEO of Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, indicated that Carrier has been following Whirlpool onto the automation track.
In fact, Carrier plans to use its Trump-orchestrated bailout package to pay for automation upgrades.
Automation is the real issue. It has been “killing” jobs for generations. That trend is accelerating with the advent of new processes like 3-D printing and the development of advanced robotics.
So far, the Trump administration has not voiced a strategy for dealing effectively with that trend.
Image (cropped): One Energy via prnewswire, rendering of proposed turbines at Whirlpool plant.