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Thursday, October 28, 2010

GE: green energy or greenwashing?

For more than five years, GE has been branding its green/environmental/sustainability efforts as ecomagination. It has custom domain, a Twitter feed and a prize contest (using open innovation ideas). It event spent nearly $3 million for a 2009 ecomagination SuperBowl ad.

When GE rolled out the campaign, a grad student writing in Monthly Review (which proclaims itself an “Independent Socialist Magazine”) was more than a little skeptical
As environmental degradation continues to expand in tandem with global capitalism, environmental consciousness becomes a new marketing strategy. GE's newest invention is to present itself as an environmental crusader. "Ecomagination" is its latest moniker, proclaiming that one of the world's largest corporations has gone green, embracing environmentally-friendly policies and promising to provide the world with solutions to environmental problems. All we have to do is trust the company and continue our lives, preferably as its customers, and it will bring us the clean, pure world shown in its advertisements.
An anti-envirnomentalist’s op-ed in the New York Sun was equally skeptical:
Environmental activists are cheering General Electric's new "Ecomagination" initiative. That's a hint that the rest of us should beware of the gimmicky-sounding program.

"Ecomagination is GE's commitment to address challenges such as the need for cleaner, more efficient sources of energy, reduced emissions and abundant sources of clean water," CEO Jeffrey Immelt said. "And we plan to make money doing it. Increasingly for business, 'green' is green."
Skepticism or not, there is a substance behind the ad campaign of the $150 billion/year conglomerate.

After selling its first turbine in 1901, GE quickly moved into renewable energy by selling a turbine for hydroelectric power generation. Its turbine expertise also led to its involvement in nuclear plants, as well as a range of fossil fuel power generation systems. Its decades-long experience with power transmission has also made it one of the most aggressive corporate backers of smart grid — the subject of the 2009 Super Bowl ad.

GE’s position in wind is more recent. In 2002, it spent $358 million to buy the wind energy assets of the bankrupt Enron Corporation, which had bought the business five years earlier. Founded in 1980 by Jim Dehlsen, Zond Energy shipped its first turbine in 1981. (Early on, Zond also purchased turbines from Vestas to install in its pioneering Tehachapi wind farm).

While GE’s wind business is the market leader in the US, 80% of its sales are in the US — perhaps a legacy of the lack of global focus by Zond or Enron. In its home market, it seems to be losing share to foreign competitors like Siemens of Germany and Suzlon of India. Like other Western makers, it has minuscule share in China due to trade barriers, and so last month formed a 51/49 joint venture with a Chinese partner.

GE also entered the PV industry via acquisition, with its 2004 purchase of the bankrupt AstroPower and its process for thin-crystalline silicon cells. More recently it has invested in various thin film processes, including CdTe and CIGS. A year ago, a GE R&D exec said solar was “the next wind for us.”

GE mentions solar thermal as a line of business but doesn’t say much about it publicly.

The contribution of these RE efforts to GE are a mystery, as it doesn’t break out wind or solar financials. Overall, the energy infrastructure segment of GE accounted for 24% of its $155 billion in 2009 revenues — but 62% of its $11 billion in profits. In mid-2008 it predicted $1 billion in solar revenues by 2011, but no progress report on how close it is to reaching that milestone.

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