General Motors exec talks money at the 2017 RESF - Smart Energy Decisions

Commercial, Finance, Industrial, Regulation, Sourcing Renewables  -  November 10, 2017 - By Megan Corsano

RESF day two: How GM aligned its energy, finance teams toward 100% renewables & more from Florida

Rob Threlkeld, global manager of renewable energy at General Motors speaking at the Smart Energy Decisions Renewable Energy Sourcing Forum on Nov. 9 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. 

Rob Threlkeld, global manager of renewable energy at General Motors Co., spoke to an early morning crowd at the 2017 Smart Energy Decisions Renewable Energy Sourcing Forum about the challenges associated with convincing the finance team at a company to get on board with a sometimes pricey renewable energy strategy.

Following a discussion on the previous day of the conference led by Duncan McIntyre, president of Altenex, about the importance of aligning the overall company strategy with your specific energy procurement goals, Threlkeld dove into the specifics about how to achieve that alignment, specifically with the finance team.

It's really understanding what your company's vision is and then linking that vision to what you've got to do in the areas of sustainability, and more importantly asking how you really look at that from a renewable energy space,” Threlkeld said.

For energy teams, working and communicating with the company's finance department can be a challenging element of executing a renewable energy strategy; SED's recently published survey of nearly 100 companies found that 88.4% of them said renewable energy purchases needed to be greenlit by their finance department.

Threlkeld outlined three main components of gaining internal support for a sustainability goal: pragmatic approach, perseverance and passion.

“You've got to really think about the questions that the financial folks, the accounting folks and the treasury folks ask because they are some deep questions, but there's usually answers to each one of those questions,” he said. “It’s an education component. They don't know the answer, they don't know what we're doing and why we're moving the industry forward so you've really got to be able to think about deep down what those questions are. After a few times of doing that, you're going to see that they really truly start to understand.”

During his session, Threlkeld explained the challenges he faced at GM when renewable energy was first becoming a priority for the automotive giant. The process from there to GM's move to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050 didn't happen overnight. At first, the finance team didn't initially understand how rapidly the industry was changing based on the evolving needs and interests of their customers and didn't understand the company’s need for sustainability programs. 

The goal behind the initial rollout of the Chevrolet Bolt EV in 2015, he said, was the very beginning of the implementation of his ultimate goal of "cleaner cars on a cleaner grid." Earlier this year, GM announced plans for an all-electric, zero-free future: Over the next two years, the company will introduce two new all-electric vehicles based on learnings from the Chevy Bolt. They will be the first of at least 20 new all-electric vehicles that will launch by 2023.

"That's really the vision I've been pushing with our folks," Threlkeld said. "When I sit down with finance, accounting and treasury departments, they can't argue against this being the right policy going forward."

He also stressed the importance of showing other leadership within the company the larger impact the renewable energy project have within the larger project. 

“You need to get a good solid mix of short-term goals and what you've got to do to for the long-term vision," he said, which helps address the finance team's focus on month-to-month results. 

GM has saved more than $80 million to-date as a result of its renewable energy use — both onsite and offsite — and energy efficiency projects.

Day two of the Renewable Energy Sourcing Forum also included a look at how energy sourcing ties in with the larger policies at play within the U.S. federal administration. Rowena Striff, energy manager at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, spoke about the impact politics has on the renewable energy industry, especially with the recently proposed cuts to federal agencies such as the U.S. EPA and DOE.

Striff was followed by a Q&A session with John Powers, vice president of strategic renewables at Schneider Electric Energy and Sustainability Services, about strategies for approaching the international renewable energy market. Powers mentioned Mexico, India and Australia as leaders in the terms of providing incentives for onsite projects that have created attractive opportunities for corporate buyers. 

The day wrapped up with a presentation by Joby Carlson, global director of sustainable energy and operations at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Carlson addressed the progress Walmart has made since setting its first renewable energy goal in 2005, including its onsite systems that total more than 460 sites across 17 states and five countries, as well as 10 large agreements with offsite sources that power operations in the United States, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

As a result, Carlson said the company has seen a decoupling of its growth from its costs and carbon impact.

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