The motor vehicle industry in the United States spends about $3.6 billion on energy annually, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In the U.S., over 70 assembly plants currently produce 13 million cars and trucks each year.
While energy expenditures are a relatively small cost factor in the total production process, energy-efficiency improvements are helping manufacturers gain an edge in an increasingly competitive environment.
In an effort to cut energy use across its manufacturing operations, Volvo has made inroads through the power of partnerships. In 2010, the company’s New River Valley (NRV) manufacturing plant in Dublin, Virginia, signed on to the Department of Energy’s Save Energy Now LEADER program — which later became the Better Buildings, Better Plants Program. Working with the DOE, the plant was able to cut its energy use by 30 percent in a single year.
The plant’s success attracted the attention of Volvo’s leadership, which compelled them to include all eight of its U.S. manufacturing plants in the Better Plants program. The company established a five-step “Learning by Doing” model for energy management across its manufacturing plants, which has helped it achieve a 25 percent energy reduction goal five years ahead of schedule.
“Essentially, it’s setting a goal, providing internal and external resources to meet the goal and sharing the findings and best practices with other plants within the Volvo Group,” Hill said.
That best part? This is a model that can be replicated across industries.
The Learning by Doing Model
The success of the Learning by Doing model hinges on forming key partnerships to tackle a variety of projects and achieve goals of different scales and types.
The first step involves setting a goal, and committing to a measurable reduction in energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions within a certain timeframe. The second step consists of identifying a partner, which can bring in best practices and toolkits to streamline the planning process as well as provide manpower and assistance for implementation. With the partnership established, step three requires supporting the budding relationship to ensure there is sufficient internal bandwidth and funding, as well as a main point of contact to manage the relationship.
“One of the biggest challenges is convincing managers to make a commitment to a program when they’re already stretched for resources,” Hill said. "For Better Plants, the Volvo Group’s corporate Health, Safety & Environment group makes reporting from the plants as simple as possible and supports them with this task. The DOE provides excellent tools and resources to facilitate energy savings."
If the partnership is successful, step four comprises communicating the win — internally sharing the story to inform employees about what the company is doing and externally sharing it to build the organization’s reputation and brand. The fifth and final step is all about scaling the successful partnership to encourage new locations to replicate the work.
Partnering with EDF Climate Corps
Right around the time when Volvo scaled its partnership with DOE’s Better Plants, the company’s Mack Trucks’ Lehigh Valley Operations in Macungie, Pennsylvania began working with EDF Climate Corps — a program that embeds trained graduate students within companies to accelerate energy projects over the summer.
In 2011, EDF Climate Corps fellow Rohini Sankapal spent ten weeks analyzing projects, including installing variable frequency drives on applicable motors, installing occupancy sensors, fixing compressed air leaks, installing high-volume and low-speed fans and upgrading compressed-air-driven manufacturing tools.
Sankapal also developed a tool that would enable Mack Trucks to monitor its energy use and strategize moving forward about how to reduce consumption. By the end of the fellowship, Sankapal’s recommended projects would save more than 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.
Since then, Volvo has hosted a half-dozen fellows. While these projects initially focused on the low-hanging fruit, they since have matured into going after the, well, higher-hanging fruit by pursuing more sophisticated energy projects.
In 2015, Volvo’s most recent fellow, Ajith Das Menon, found ways for the company to go even deeper by identifying six different energy-efficiency upgrades that could not only help the company save a significant amount of money, but also provide some solid emissions reductions.
“The technological solutions to improving energy performance are there, and are constantly improving,” Liz Delaney, program director at EDF Climate Corps, told Sustainable Brands. “The real challenge lies within the actual act of doing the work. Companies need rock-solid business cases, technical know-how and the willingness to engage with everyone who uses energy, which means every single employee.”
“Volvo did an excellent job of recognizing that the challenge of reducing energy consumption is a people problem, and they have chosen to solve this people problem with people. They have developed some great ways to share learnings across facilities and engage their staff in doing this work. And, they weren’t afraid to ask for help. Through strategic partnerships, they were able to go farther and faster than they ever could have alone.”