Manufacturing and Sustainability

Furniture makers tackle renewable energy investments

The Big Three all have made significant strides in the past decade.

May 9, 2014
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Grand Rapids furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. announced it had achieved a big milestone earlier this year: The company’s renewable energy investment is now equivalent to 100 percent of its global electricity consumption.

The achievement makes Steelcase the 15th-largest 100 percent renewable energy purchaser in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership.

The Green Power Partnership is a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. It currently has more than 1,200 partner organizations voluntarily using billions of kilowatt-hours of green power annually.

Steelcase chooses renewable energy credits from a portfolio that includes newer projects and non-emitting sources like wind and hydroelectric energy in North America and Europe, making it a leader among REC purchasers.

“As a reflection of our company values, we maintain a sense of urgency in limiting our use of fossil fuels,” said Jim Keane, Steelcase president and CEO. “Steelcase remains focused on identifying innovative ways to build the energy efficiency of our operations, to reduce the embodied energy of our products, and to help our customers optimize their own real estate and energy use.”

The company also has instituted a program to expand its impact by encouraging its suppliers to purchase clean RECs from new wind energy facilities that came online in 2011 or later. Those choosing to participate will benefit from Steelcase's volume discount pricing.

Steelcase isn’t the only local furniture manufacturer leading the way in using renewable energy. Herman Miller instituted a robust renewable energy plan in 2004 that helped the company hit its 100 percent renewable energy mark earlier than anticipated.

“In 2004, we launched a sustainability strategy called Perfect Vision, and it had a series of environmental goals built around the year 2020. The idea of getting to 100 percent renewable electricity was one of those goals,” said Gabe Wing, director of safety and sustainability at Herman Miller.

“Our original plan was just 5 percent per year until we hit 100 percent, but we were saving so much money through efficiencies in our procurement process and other efficiencies, we decided to go the full 100 percent back in 2010.”

Jerry Akers, Herman Miller’s corporate energy manager, said the Green Power Partnership helped the company reduce the costs it was facing as it transitioned to renewable energy, allowing for the giant leap forward rather than the slower step-by-step approach.

The program provides a host of resources for companies, possibly the most important of which is as a platform to connect renewable energy buyers and sellers.

“It puts everybody together in one boat so that the buyers can meet the sellers and we all know what we are getting. The sellers know what the buyers want. It does help promote renewable energy overall,” Akers said.

Herman Miller uses a variety of renewable sources to achieve the 100 percent mark.

“The majority is landfill gas, or biomass, which is waste-to-energy type facilities,” Akers said.

The company also has a purchase agreement with a Michigan wind farm, and its Zeeland facility includes an energy center where manufacturing waste is transformed into renewable energy for the company.

“It creates 80 percent of all of our heating and cooling needs,” Wing said. “It reduces our total carbon footprint by about 25 percent worldwide. It’s a huge reduction in our demand for fossil fuel-based energy.”

Even though Herman Miller reached its 100 percent goal four years ago, it isn’t done. Its newest sustainability strategy, Earth Right, considers several factors beyond simply purchasing the RECs.

“Our Earth Right goal is keeping it at 100 percent but improving the quality of energy that we buy and the location of the energy we buy. (That way) we are having impacts where our facilities are on the ground,” Akers said. “At our Georgia operation, for example, we are looking for facilities that are close rather than just buying national RECs produced anywhere.”

“We’ve (also) set some targets around reducing the total amount of energy that we consume. Our target is to reduce our energy intensity by 50 percent over the next 10 years in terms of how much energy it takes to generate a sales dollar.”

Other 100 percent Green Power Partners in Michigan are Industrial Woodworking Corp. (Zeeland), Print-Tech (Ann Arbor) and Dreamscape Multimedia (Lansing).

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