Sustainable Energy Can Mean Reduced Costs For Business: The Green Machine and Solar Power are Examples

There’s a lot of talk these days about companies “going green.” Incandescent light bulbs have given way to compact fluorescents. Motion detectors are turning lights on only when people are present. They’re small but important first steps. The real indicators of a green, or sustainable, economy are when good intentions can be applied to the bottom line. The following is a quick overview of a couple of examples.

Waste heat to power

Dick DeVos

Dick DeVos loves to sail. He also is an astute businessman. In 1989 he left Amway, the company his father co-founded, to form a holding company called Windquest. In 2007, he and his brother sailed his yacht, also named Windquest, to victory in the famed Chicago to Mackinaw boat race.

In that race, DeVos used the wind, a renewable resource. Now, one of his Windquest ventures has developed a device that uses another renewable resource to help businesses reduce their energy bills.

The device, called The Green Machine, converts waste heat that’s the byproduct of a manufacturing process -“ in liquid or gaseous form -“ into electricity.

Making even a little sunlight make money
Louis Padnos Iron and Metal Company has been “recycling” stuff for more than a hundred years. Most of that time it has been turning scrap iron and other materials into a form that can be reused to manufacture new products. Now the company has added sunlight to that list of recyclables. On the roof of one of the Padnos recycling centers sit 636 solar panels, capable of generating nearly 150 kilowatts of electricity an hour.

A closer look

The Green Machine

“Some time ago Windquest brought on a specialist in alternative energy,” says Dick DeVos. “We knew this was going to be an important part of our future, but also an opportunity. I believe in sustainability. But it’s not just an environmental concept, it’s also an economic one. If a particular business approach is not economically viable it will not be sustainable. What we were looking for were not things that were glitzy and glamorous. We focused on technologies that were environmentally sound and economically sustainable. We felt that was the next step that would grow roots and become strong and actually get adopted.”

DeVos says that some of the new products in the marketplace are either too dependent on tax incentives or subsidies, or the real payback, which won’t occur until the cost of traditional energy, such as electricity, gets high enough to make alternatives viable and truly competitive.

Bill Olson, Dick and Betsy DeVos and Chris Schauer shown with The Green Machine.

“We became early investors in the ElectraTherm Company [the company that developed the Green Machine],” DeVos says, “and once the product went into production we began to look into distribution of it. Michigan is a manufacturing state and the Green Machine will help Michigan manufacturers become more competitive as soon as possible by lowering their energy costs.”

DeVos says the company Windquest has partnered with -” Pro Services, which is headquartered in Portage, Mich. -” has the knowledge of the marketplace, the customer base of manufacturing clients and the technical skills necessary to install the Green Machine in a variety of circumstances.

“It’s a three-legged stool,” DeVos explains. “ElectraTherm provides the core technology, Pro Services provides the installation ability and the knowledge of the customers’ needs and Windquest then provides both financing and high-level business acumen.”

How it works
Mike Vandemaele is president of Pro Services as well as the Windquest joint venture Pro Renewables. He says that companies that purchase the Green Machine are not just investing in something that will significantly reduce their electricity costs but are, in effect, “confident in their future because they believe they will still be around to reap the benefits of the roughly half-cent per kilowatt hour cost that the Green Machine will provide them.”

Vandemaele is asked to explain how the Green Machine works. “We like to say it drinks liquid,” he says, chuckling. “If any industrial process involves a hot liquid of almost any sort then the Green Machine can convert that heat into electricity. In a stationary engine it can almost replace the radiator. If people are trying to cool that liquid down before they reuse it for their process, we can cool it down 15 to 20 degrees before it gets to whatever mechanism they were using to cool it down before we came along.

“Plus, of course,” Vandemaele continues, “there’s that almost free electricity thing.”

The “almost free” electricity comes with some qualifiers, depending on the client’s situation. “If someone doesn’t have the optimal liquid temperature going into the machine, or enough gallons-per-minute flow rate, then the only thing that will change is the amount of electricity generated,” Vandemaele explains. “It’s very adaptable to changing conditions. It can run 24/7 or less. The less it runs, then the payback time increases.” The payback time can be between two and four years -“ or less if there are rebates or other incentives from the local utility.

The Green Machine was designed to produce 50 kilowatts per hour. It was also designed to be easy to install. “We wanted it to fit on almost every freight elevator out there, to make it more accessible to more companies,” Vandemaele continues. “It’s almost bulletproof. The internal operation requires almost no maintenance and should easily last 20 or 25 years.”

For customers who require additional electrical output, Vandemaele says that “you can gang 10 or 20 of them together. They were designed to do that.

“The important thing, though,” explains Vandemaele, “is that this initial machine was designed to be affordable and attractive enough to appeal to as many manufacturing operations as possible -“ to get them saving money.”

Are the companies that are buying the Green Machine interested solely in the financial aspects?

“Actually,” says Vandemaele, “they’re very interested in the environmental aspects as well, the sustainability factor. They dial the machine up on their computer and see how well it’s performing. We can also set it up to show their electrical meter and what happens when the Green Machine starts working. The electric meter really slows down.”

The solar panel installation

The solar panels on the roof of Padnos.

Keith Noblett is the facilities director for Holland, Mich.-based Padnos. Those 656 solar panels on the roof of one of the Padnos recycling centers are his responsibility.

“It was a good idea to add a sustainable product to our portfolio, and be the front edge of solar development in Michigan,” Noblett says. “It was also a good idea to help stabilize our electrical rates.”

The solar panels occupy 15,000 square feet on the roof of a Padnos facility outside Grand Rapids that recycles plastic. Noblett anticipates that as the plastic recycling business grows, the electricity generated by the panels may not be sufficient to run the plant in the future. “It’s our first venture into alternative energy,” he explains. “We view it as a research and development project, and we’ll be looking at other opportunities in the future.”

Actually, for the first seven-and-a-half years, the panels will serve solely as an alternative generating facility for Consumers Energy, Padnos’ local electrical utility.

“The electricity generated will all go back to Consumers, and we’ll get a premium for it,” Noblett explains. “It’s part of a mandate from the Michigan Public Service Commission to have utilities use renewable resources for 10 percent of their output by 2015.

“We’re looking at other alternative energy sources for our other locations,” Noblett continues. “Whether it’s wind, or solar, or perhaps the Green Machine, it will depend on the needs of the location.”

The Padnos solar panels are more efficient than most people think. Even with snow on them the panels keep converting sunlight to electricity, not nearly as much as on a sunny July afternoon, but some nonetheless. The actual amount of electricity being generated can be viewed real-time on a public Web site: Visitors can see what weather conditions are at the plant, as well as other relevant information.

“There have been times, such as when we had 12 inches of snow on them that there was no production,” says Noblett, “but they’ll produce when it’s cloudy or when it’s raining. It’s like why you put on sunscreen even when it’s a cloudy day. There’s still solar energy filtering through and for us, that means it’s making electricity.”

Two approaches to sustainable energy production, both in operation today and both, as Dick DeVos points out, are economically sustainable -“ perhaps shining a little light on the future of a manufacturing economy.