U.S. auto manufacturing giant GM has just come out with a major wind power announcement that illustrates an ironic aspect to the renewable energy revolution. The company will use wind power to help keep its factories humming in Ohio and Indiana, which is great news for job seekers in both the wind and auto manufacturing sectors. The irony comes in on the factory floor, where GM will continue to turn out gasoline powered light-duty pickup trucks.
So...does the new wind power buy represent concrete progress, or is GM spinning its wheels?
The renewable energy conundrum
Using renewable energy to power the fossil resource economy is far from unusual. After all, even a forward-thinking company like Lego has had trouble finding a sustainable replacement for its petrochemical plastic bricks, even as it transitions its front-office operations to wind power.
Renewables have enabled the modern fossil resource industry since at least the 1970s, when research funded in part by Exxon (yes, Exxon) helped bring down the cost of solar modules. Oil companies began deploying solar panels to provide electricity for offshore drilling platforms and other remote sites long before Ikea adopted them.
More recently, solar energy is being harnessed to help bring down the cost of steam-enhanced oil recovery.
In that context, GM's foray into wind power illustrates how complicated it is to achieve real gains in greenhouse gas management.
On the other hand, GM has already taken its greenhouse gas reduction strategy to the next level,with its early adoption of mass-marketed electric vehicles.
GM battled consumer skepticism and significant blowback from conservative pundits when it launched the Chevy Volt gas-electric hybrid several years ago (the gas part only kicks in after the battery runs out). More recently GM introduced the all-electric Bolt, which has won accolades as an affordable alternative to Tesla's Model S.
The company has also taken automotive sustainability up another notch by dipping into the car sharing trend with its Maven ride-hailing service. According to the company, the Bolt is a popular choice among both drivers and passengers.
GM and renewables: lessons learned from early adopters
Speaking of early adopters, let's take a look at GM's new wind power announcement.
The new wind power buy is a massive 200-megawatt commitment that will come online by 2018, at which point all of GM's factories in Ohio and Indiana will get 100 percent of their electricity from renewables.
The participating plants are the Lordstown Assembly, Defiance Casting Operations, Parma Metal Center and Toledo Transmission plants in Ohio and the Fort Wayne Assembly, Marion Metal Center and Bedford Casting plants in Indiana.
Among other models, these plants are responsible for the Chevrolet Cruze, Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.
GM's initiative illustrates an emerging renewable energy trend picked up by the energy information firm Smart Energy Decisions. According to SED, the industrial sector has been slow to adopt renewables compared to commercial enterprises. However, a new survey by the firm indicates an acceleration of interest among industrial stakeholders.
The survey also indicates that newcomers to the renewable energy field are able to "leapfrog" into more ambitious and sophisticated projects, by tapping into a reservoir of experience built up by early adopters.
That appears to be the case with GM. Although GM is far from new to the renewable energy field, the ambitious wind power initiative represents a big jump up (the new purchase dwarfs a 34-megawatt GM wind energy investment in Mexico in 2015, for example). Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, GM relied on the guidance of an experienced expert.
To see its renewable energy plans through to fruition, GM embarked on an advisory partnership with Alternex (a division of Edison Energy Company). Alternex provided support to GM in negotiating power purchase agreements with two wind farms.
Under the agreements, GM will claim all of the electricity generated by the 100-megawatt Northwest Ohio Wind Farm, a project of the Starwood Energy Group.
The remaining 100 megawatts are coming from the Hill Topper Wind Project in Illinois, which is owned by the company Swift Current Energy.
Sprinting down the sustainability track
As GM's track record illustrates, sustainability is a long, complex path. Sometimes it involves wheel-spinning, and sometimes there is a strong, irreversible sprint forward. The important thing is to keep striving, as GM makes clear in a mission statement backing up this week's wind power announcement.
In the statement, GM underscores the role of corporate culture in ensuring that sustainable initiatives weave into a holistic path forward. To put that into words, GM recasts the conventional "three P's of People, Planet, Profit" into a new approach:
It takes time to gain traction for these initiatives and embed a sustainability culture into company DNA. It can require a “three P” method of its own: a pragmatic approach fulfilled through perseverance and supported by passion for sustainable solutions.
Breaking it down to the details, GM uses its new wind power buy to underscore the importance of the pragmatic aspect: building support "outside the sustainability space" from the company's various divisions including financial, legal, policy and facilities management, and enlisting outside partners such as local utilities.
The perseverance part comes in when it comes to fostering teamwork among divisions in a company that don't usually work in tandem. GM broke open these company "silos" to make its first wind power deal in Mexico in 2015. Once that teamwork was established, GMs adoption of renewables accelerated significant. That first deal was quickly followed by three more deals including the new one.
As for passion, GM circles back around to the traditional formula with an emphasis on its employees:
Progress would not be possible without the dedication of a team that values sustainability and the benefits it brings to our customers, business and communities. Our people are on a mission to develop sustainable solutions that move humanity forward.
Other recent GM initiatives outside of the renewables field include a renewed emphasis on STEM programs for women and girls, a global recycling and waste reduction effort, and a foray into fuel cells in partnership with Honda.
Photo: Starwood Wind Farm via General Motors.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.