Man walking through General Motors Assembly Plant

At GM’s Oshawa Assembly Plant, energy efficiency pursuits inspire, earn accolades

There are many arguments in favour of pursuing corporate energy efficiency, including cost savings and environmental benefits. Yet today, such measures are often dismissed as being too challenging to implement or less important than other operational concerns. 

The experiences of leading companies that have successfully translated energy-saving goals into positive tangible outcomes, however, can serve as inspiration for businesses large and small alike to take similar action, says Derek Roldan, marketing advisor at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), the organization that manages Ontario’s power system. 

One example is GM’s Oshawa Assembly Plant, where a range of creative initiatives helped the iconic automaker to not only improve its energy efficiency, but also gain a range of unexpected benefits, such as increased employee engagement and satisfaction, says Kevin Wagner, energy conservation engineer at GM’s Oshawa assembly plant.

“Instituting an energy conscious culture is very important,” says Mr. Wagner, who adds that people increasingly care about sustainability and want to see their values reflected not only at home but also at work.

Mr. Wagner came to GM in 2016 as part of IESO’s Save on Energy program, which provided the company with access to a full-time energy manager. His mandate includes helping to develop an energy management strategy, identify and implement energy efficiency projects and facilitate GM’s application for industrial accelerator incentives.

Mr. Roldan believes paying attention to energy efficiency and competitiveness go hand-in-hand. “The companies that are at the forefront of implementing energy efficiency measures are not only reaping significant financial rewards, they are also becoming more competitive in their fields,” he says. 

Energy efficiency a must for competitive production 

In Oshawa, GM traces its roots to one of Canada’s oldest automakers – the McLaughlin Motor Car Company, which got its start in 1908. It became GM of Canada Limited in 1918 when it became incorporated under The Companies Act of Canada. 

While GM’s longevity and global success speak to its well-honed ability to adapt to changing market conditions, the issue of energy conservation came to the forefront over the 32 years Ray Warner has been with the company. “Back in the '80s, energy was not a priority. It was simply seen as the cost of doing business,” says the current utilities manager for GM’s Oshawa operation. “Now with the high cost of energy, we are focusing on energy efficiency and continuous improvement of our operations."

Today, the cost-competitive production of quality vehicles is a corporate priority, with energy recognized as a substantial manufacturing input, says Mr. Warner. “It’s an important issue for us in Oshawa, where the cost of energy has risen significantly as our production volumes and overall operation have changed.”

Where legacy facilities are involved, it is a common assumption that energy performance improvements come with a hefty price tag, which can inhibit companies from moving forward, says Mr. Roldan. “There is this perception that only big and expensive projects make a difference,” he says. “But we’ve seen examples where companies are just starting out and are already achieving a noticeable impact by simply getting their employees engaged.”

Hunting for savings and finding them in compressed air

One initiative that led to substantial benefits focused on compressed air systems used to power hand-held tools, the most expensive utility at the Oshawa powerhouse, according to Mr. Wagner. The issue came to light through an “energy hunt,” in which employees explored buildings and departments where they don’t normally work to spot energy-saving opportunities, he says. 

“Some of our team members were able to identify compressed air leaks because of their expertise. They said, ‘Hey, it’d be good if we had some kind of demonstration tool that simulates air leaks and tells people how much they cost. Our techs in the powerhouse created the tool, a GM innovation, from spare parts in a week,” says Mr. Wagner. 

Compressed air leaks cost the corporation tens of thousands of dollars a year, and there are immediate savings to be realized by fixing them. Even more substantial savings will follow when old equipment is replaced by technology that is right-sized for current load parameters, he explains. “Compressed air leaks cause an artificial load, so we’re generating a portion of compressed air to satisfy these leaks. When we right-size the equipment, we generate the amount of compressed air that’s necessary for production and nothing more.”

Visible changes: lighting

Improving lighting didn’t have as dramatic an impact on GM’s bottom line as fixing compressed air leaks, but it brought a host of other benefits, says Mr. Wagner. “The benefits of improved lighting are productivity, safety and of course, energy savings.” 

To make the switch to LED lighting easier, Mr. Wagner established a relationship with a local manufacturer, who introduced the product and set up a vendor account that allows maintenance personnel to directly order lights, streamlining procurement and implementation processes. “These new lights come at a price point that is comparable to some of the old technology. So, there aren’t any cost restraints associated with moving toward LEDs,” he says. 

“Cost and electricity load [associated with lighting] have gone down. But while it is only a small part of our electricity consumption, it has a big behavioural impact. Having nice lights in the assembly areas shows people that we care,” says Mr. Wagner, who believes that when people are happy at work, this affects the quality of work and ultimately the product. 

Mr. Roldan has also noticed a “link between energy efficiency, a comfortable work environment and health and wellness,” he says. “One of the hidden benefits is a higher employee satisfaction.”

Recognition and goals

The GM Oshawa energy management team’s achievements were recently recognized with an IESO Energy Management Leadership Award, and Mr. Roldan hopes that this strong foundation will help inspire the company to pursue even more ambitious goals.

Mr. Warner states that the site’s energy conservation efforts fit well with GM’s recent commitment to be on 100 per cent renewable electricity by the year 2050. “Anything we can do to reduce [energy] consumption as well as find sustainable energy sources is not only helping us be more competitive, it is also important to the corporation as a whole.”