Not easy being green

April 25, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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As Kermit the Frog once sang, it’s not easy being green. Jerry Akers would agree, and he knows that trying to stay green is a constantly moving target.

Akers is senior energy manager at Herman Miller, which has made a name for itself by being green. That mindset got started in 1953, when founder D.J. De Pree announced that the office furniture company would be “a good corporate neighbor by being a good steward of the environment.”

De Pree had other ideas ahead of their time, such as having windows in all company buildings including the factories and requiring that 50 percent of any Herman Miller corporate site be set aside as green space. But energy use, in particular, became a major focus until finally, about a year ago, Herman Miller reached the point where 100 percent of electrical energy used in all its facilities worldwide was generated from a renewable source.

Herman Miller’s “Better World Report” issued last year notes that the company’s use of renewable electrical power “effectively reduces our carbon footprint by 50 percent.” Now the company is determined to reach its goal of being carbon neutral by 2020.

Herman Miller got the jump on other companies in the race to be a renewable energy user back when the Harvest Wind Farm in Michigan’s Thumb was about to go on line around 2008. Developed by John Deere Renewables, which was working with Wolverine Electric, Harvest was the first commercial-scale wind farm built in Michigan, and Herman Miller nailed down a three-year contract before the first juice began to flow.

Herman Miller was Harvest Wind Farm’s largest customer, but the contract expired last year. That’s because the Michigan Renewable Portfolio Standard, enacted in the fall of 2008, required Consumers Energy and DTE to obtain at least 10 percent of their electricity by 2015 from renewable sources. “The utilities needed that energy more than I did, and I could not keep up with the price that they were paying,” said Akers.

Herman Miller’s electricity is still 100 percent green, however, because the company buys Renewable Energy Credits “from sources throughout the United States — generally in areas where renewable portfolio standards are not in effect,” said Akers.

As Herman Miller spokesperson Mark Schurman explained it, an REC represents a quantifiable unit of electricity that is produced by wind, solar or other renewable source. The purchase of an REC enables the production of renewable energy that is put on the grid.

Although Herman Miller isn’t now buying electricity from Michigan wind farms, Akers said there are some renewable energy projects going on that have the company’s attention, and “some of those are in Michigan, some are not.”

“I can’t tell you what we’re working on now,” he said. Part of the reason for the hush-hush is that proposed commercial wind turbines sometimes generate controversy, and Herman Miller is “trying to be sensitive” about what projects it gets behind.

There is a premium paid for electricity produced by renewable resources, but Herman Miller makes up for that cost through savings from energy-efficiency projects such as Energy Star-rated equipment, lighting upgrades, LEED projects and manufacturing-related projects.

Herman Miller got another jump on being green more than 20 years ago by opening its Energy Center, which generates 100 percent of the steam needed by its main location in Zeeland, which has about 1 million total square footage. Ninety-two percent of that steam comes from burning the company’s wood waste.

Based on the amount of solid waste the company sent to landfills in 1993/1994, Herman Miller had reduced that amount by almost 92 percent as of last year. The company’s site in Geiger, Ga., sends whatever can’t be recycled to Huntsville, Ala., where it is burned to generate power for the NASA operations there. The Herman Miller site in Ningbo, China, sends all non-recyclable solid waste to a waste-to-energy generating plant.

Last year, Herman Miller’s renewable energy portfolio consisted of 51 percent wind-generated electricity and 49 percent biomass. Savings from energy-efficiency suggestions from employees covered the additional expense incurred to reach that goal. Those efforts contributed to its seventh consecutive listing on the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index and recognition by a Detroit Free Press program as one of 16 Michigan Green Leaders out of more than 350 nominations last year.

In 2009, decreased production due to the recession, in combination with energy-reduction projects, resulted in a net decrease in use of electrical energy and natural gas at Herman Miller, according to its 2010 report. That was equal to an annual cost avoidance of over $875,000.

One of the most successful energy-efficiency projects is the conversion of HID lighting in the factories to T8 fluorescent lighting and adding control technology, cutting the lighting bills in half.

Herman Miller’s energy-reduction efforts are equivalent to not driving 7.5 million miles or to planting 950 acres of trees or saving enough energy to power 475 average-size homes for one year, according to “A Better World.”

Akers said each Herman Miller facility has someone leading energy management improvements, and each has a specific goal of cost reductions in energy use. Depending on what type of energy is used the most, those expenses can be connected to electricity or natural gas or water use.

Akers said the company’s reduction of energy use has “gotten quite a big boost from local utility companies.” In Michigan and other states, laws have been passed requiring the utilities to offer rebate programs for customers who find ways to use energy more efficiently. Those rebates typically help pay for the new equipment that further reduces energy consumption.

The Herman Miller locations with the most success “are the ones that are actually engaging the utility customer service liaison — the guy from the utility company. They help them get the rebates,” he said, because the utility is looking for inefficiencies.

Along with more efficient lighting, projects such as replacing inefficient motors or putting a variable frequency drive on a motor can be very successful, “and all of those come with a utility rebate.”

When a salesman for, say, electric motors claims his product will save Herman Miller money, “nobody generally believes him,” but if the utility representative says that a particular motor will save 20 percent — and that there is a rebate that will help pay for it — “then everybody tends to believe them,” said Akers.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a big issue, of course, and one that tends to change with new research and technology. In calendar 2008, Herman Miller operations around the world emitted an estimated 28,053 metric tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalent. In calendar 2009, that had been whittled down to 23,135 tons.

Akers said issues regarding electrical generation are “pretty easy to understand,” but that is not necessarily the case with natural gas. “The next real step for us is: What do we do about our natural gas (use)?” said Akers. “Unless you are close to a landfill and using landfill gas, there is really not a clean and easy way to substitute another fuel source for natural gas.”

Last week, there was a report about new research at Cornell University that indicates the greenhouse gas footprint of unconventional natural gas production — read “hydraulic fracturing” — may be harder on the climate than use of coal because of methane gas released into the atmosphere.

“If that’s true, then now we’ve got even more problems,” said Akers, because environmental groups have long tended to recommend use of natural gas instead of coal.

Then there are the economic and environmental issues relating to corporate use of liquid fossil fuels for transportation.

“Does the electric vehicle play a role? And if so, at what level?” said Akers.

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