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General Motors Redefining Environmental Sustainability of its Plants

Bruce Nunnally

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Detroit - While General Motors continues its ambitious investments in alternative fuel and advanced propulsion technologies, the company is also continuing to make dramatic improvements in reducing the environmental impact of its worldwide manufacturing operations. Through this focus, GM is aggressively reducing energy and water use, looking for renewable energy opportunities and significantly reducing waste generated in the company's global network of manufacturing facilities.

As the significant global effort is underway to develop hybrid and other "green" vehicle programs, such as the Chevrolet Volt, GM is also setting the industry standard for "sustainable" manufacturing methods.

"While GM is in the process of reinventing the automobile and the company, we're also redefining environmental sustainability in our factories," said Elizabeth Lowery, GM vice president for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy. "We know that when it comes to environmental impact, the end vehicle is only part of the equation and that taking steps to "green" our manufacturing processes are critical as well."

Global Waste Management

One of the company's most dramatic environmental initiatives is to make 50 percent of the company's global manufacturing operations landfill-free by the end of 2010. GM facilities achieve the landfill-free status when all production waste or garbage is recycled, reused or converted to energy.

Currently GM has 54 global manufacturing operations that have reached landfill-free operating status. This effort at the landfill-free facilities diverts over 825,000 tons of waste from landfills each year. GM expects more than 80 of its 160 manufacturing facilities will reach landfill-free status by the end of 2010.

At GM's landfill-free plants, more than 95 percent of waste is recycled or reused, while just over 4 percent is converted to energy. No production waste or garbage is sent directly to a landfill.

"To put GM's landfill-free initiative into perspective, when a household puts a single bag of trash on the curb, they are sending more waste directly to a landfill than all our 54 current global landfill-free plants combined," added Lowery.

"A big part of being landfill-free is effective recycling," said Lowery. Not only does this intensive focus on recycling help the environment, it helps the company's bottom line. For example, as a result of the GM's global recycling efforts, metal scrap sales generated revenue of more than $1 billion in 2008. In addition to the steel, GM recycled 17,000 tons of wood, 20,000 tons of cardboard and 4,000 tons of plastics in 2008.

In addition, GM's waste reduction efforts at its plants around the world over the past five years have reduced carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 21 million metric tons.

Global Energy Reduction Efforts

From 2005 through 2008, GM has reduced its global manufacturing energy demands more than 23 percent. This reduction can be equated to the energy required to heat and power 700,000 homes in the United States. And over this same period, from a financial standpoint, GM's focus on energy reduction has contributed almost a half billion dollars to the bottom line.

Renewable Energy - Solar

GM is one of the leading users of renewable energy in the manufacturing sector, with renewable energy sources representing more than 2.5 percent of its total U.S. energy use.

GM boasts the world's largest rooftop solar photovoltaic power installation at its Zaragoza, Spain car assembly plant. The Zaragoza installation covers about 2 million sq. feet of roof at the plant with about 85,000 solar panels.

The Zaragoza installation can generate about 12 megawatt (mw) of power at its highest output. The installation generates about 15.1 million kw of power annually, which is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to power 1,500 homes on a yearly basis in Spain.

GM has two of the largest solar power installations in the United States on the roofs of parts warehouse facilities in Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana, California.

The solar array in Rancho Cucamonga was the first public solar project in the U.S. over 1 MW when it began operating in the fall of 2006. It is one of the U.S.'s largest corporate solar photovoltaic installations, which provides about 50 percent of the electricity to the facility.

The Fontana array, at just under 1 megawatt, began operating in December 2007. The system generates about 1.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. It also provides excess electricity back to the grid for use by other area consumers and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1,200 tons each year.

Renewable Energy - Landfill Gas

Beyond solar panels, GM is also reviewing opportunities to expand the use of landfill gas as an energy source at a few facilities. The waste that people are throwing out in their trash, when it decomposes, creates gas that is being used to fire boilers or generate electricity in six of GM's U.S. manufacturing facilities. This initiative saved GM in excess of $5 million in energy costs in 2008.

Water Conservation

From 2005 through 2008, GM reduced water use at its manufacturing facilities worldwide by 18 percent.

For example, the San Luis Potosi, Mexico vehicle assembly plant, one of GM's newest plants, was designed to reduce water consumption by 30 million gallons per year. All waste water is pumped into an on-site treatment facility for re-use in the plant.

In addition, GM's Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant received a gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, making it the only automotive plant in the world - as well as the largest facility and the most complex manufacturing site -- to receive this honor.

In its first 10 years of operations, the Lansing Delta Township plant will save over 40 million gallons of water and 30 million kwh of electricity. At the plant, water is collected from the roof to flush toilets.


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