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Tina Casey headshot

GM Keeps Boosting the Energy Efficiency of Its Buildings

By Tina Casey
energy efficiency

There is one aspect of sustainability at GM that doesn’t fall into the media spotlight: the improvement of energy efficiency within its buildings.

Editor's Note: This story about energy efficiency at GM is part of an editorial series featuring companies on CR Magazine's 20th annual 100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking, which recognizes outstanding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosure and performance among the Russell 1,000 Index. You can follow the series here

The highly praised Chevrolet Bolt has provided General Motors (GM) with a high-profile pathway into the headline-grabbing world of electric vehicles. The company’s clean power initiatives have also garnered media spotlight. Just as importantly, though, GM has been working to share another key aspect of its clean tech journey that doesn’t often catch media attention: energy efficiency in buildings.

After all, transportation is not the only sector responsible for a large portion of human-related carbon emissions. Buildings also play an important role. Here in the U.S., for example, residential and commercial buildings account for roughly 40 percent of total energy consumption.

Partnering to promote energy efficiency

Efficiency-aware manufacturers like GM face a messaging challenge. They get copious amounts of press when they roll out their new models, but their work on building energy efficiency often takes place behind the scenes.

One effective way to get the message out is to partner with local stakeholders on energy-efficiency campaigns. In GM’s home state, for example, the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan created the Michigan Battle of the Buildings campaign to shine a spotlight on best practices, including low-cost and no-cost initiatives.

Last year more than 1,000 buildings entered the friendly competition. GM garnered the coveted the first place “Biggest Loser” title in the Warehouse/Distribution category, for a 23 percent cut in energy use at its CCA Flint IE Lab. The company also won second place in the same category for a 20 percent reduction at its Grand Blanc Center, and second place in the water category for a 49 percent reduction at its Heritage Center.

As described by GM, achieving the impressive, double-digit energy efficiency improvements over the course of one year is not rocket science. Off-the-shelf, proven technology does the trick: “Specific examples include converting lighting to LEDs, sealing up building envelope, replacing broken thermostats and gas regulators, modifying heating units to reduce outside air, reducing burners and scheduling units to maintain setpoints for occupied and unoccupied times.”

Acting locally, and acting globally

Government partnerships provide another messaging pathway. One good example in that area is the EPA Energy Star program. The long-running initiative includes certification for buildings and plants, as well as the more familiar home appliance categories.

Last month, GM received the program’s highest recognition for energy management, the 2019 Energy Star Partner of the Year Sustained Excellence Award.

The automaker has received the award eight times since 2010, when it stepped up its energy savings commitment. As of 2018, 17 GM buildings in the U.S. were certified by Energy Star, including two data centers and the company’s iconic mid-century Technical Center in Warren (pictured at the top of this story) designed by Eero Saarinen over 60 years ago. 

GM also has eight additional buildings under certification through its participation in the global Energy Star Challenge for Industry.

Sharing best practices between sectors

GM also participates in the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings initiative for energy efficiency. Better Buildings doesn’t often make the front page, but it has significant influence within the built environment space. Its participants account for approximately 12 percent of the manufacturing footprint in the U.S., totaling 2,900 facilities in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Like the Green Buildings Council, Better Buildings has been drawing from pop culture for publicity. Four years ago, it borrowed the “swap” model from a reality TV show for its online video series, “Better Buildings SWAP.” The series challenges pairs of energy management teams to provide solutions for each other.

The fourth installment aired last year, featuring a management team from GM. The team stepped in to assess energy efficiency at L'Oréal USA’s largest cosmetics plant, located in Little Rock, Arkansas.  In addition to providing energy-saving insights to L’Oréal, the team gleaned some inspiration for new employee engagement strategies at GM.

Meanwhile, a management team from L'Oréal USA assessed GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant. They spotted energy-saving opportunities in several areas including the facility’s compressed air systems. They also came away with GM’s "energy-efficiency treasure hunt" strategy for employee engagement at L’Oréal.

The swap format strategy seems to be paying off. According to the Energy Department, over the past few years the SWAP videos have accumulated more than 4.7 million views.

Later this month, we’ll continue discussing GM’s energy-efficiency work by focusing on the automaker's various partnerships with utilities.

Image credit: GM Corporate Newsroom

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey