GE Grapples With Green Growth

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Sometimes writers get carried away, I admit it. We allow our penchant for clever phrases to intrude on serious matters, like saving the Earth. I suffered a moment of temporary insanity in May 2005, when I compared General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) announcement of a major environmental initiative to Michael Palin's indecision in the film "Monty Python & the Holy Grail."

Perhaps there was reason back then to be a little skeptical. Most large companies, including Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , BP (NYSE: BP  ) , and General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , had jumped on the environmental bandwagon in recent years. But how much of this is PR to enhance the corporate image, compared to a serious commitment that holds true promise to save some whales (or even better, some entire species)? In honor of Earth Day on April 22, it's appropriate to follow up to see whether GE has truly "gone green," or whether it's just in the game for some PR points. I promise to stick to business this time. No clever Monty Python references.

GE's 2006 "citizenship report," available on its website, makes it clear the company means business. The report is 96 pages long, translated into seven languages, and explains in minute detail the myriad efforts underway at GE to both improve the environment and make money in the process. The initiative is called "ecomagination" (GE also has some writers who are good at turning a phrase).

The four cornerstones of ecomagination
As a summary, here's what GE wants to accomplish with ecomagination.

  1. Double R&D investment in clean technologies between 2005 and 2010.
  2. Grow revenues to over $20 billion in 2010 from products that have significant environmental performance benefits.
  3. Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2012 -- 1% overall, and 30% in intensity (meaning emissions go down a little while the company grows a lot).
  4. Keep the public informed.

Measure for measure
I know point four sounds like a reversion to the PR angle, and in a way, it is. But I've pointed out before that what gets measured gets accomplished. GE is incredibly specific in the metrics it has established to measure its environmental performance, even pointing out areas where it missed the targets, like wastewater exceedances.

I'm not sure exceedances is really a word (my spell check says not), but GE uses it to measure wastewater spills that exceed local limits, no matter how small (which, by the way, totaled 101 in 2005 -- slightly up from 2004 but significantly down from 2003). I don't know of another company that's taking as comprehensive an approach to measuring its environmental performance.

Clean energy initiatives
There's a lot of ecomagination going on at GE. Just some of the major initiatives revolving around clean energy include:

  • Wind energy: Engineers are developing a next-generation offshore wind turbine that will be one of the most powerful in the world.

  • Solar energy: GE already manufactures solar electric power systems. Scientists are working on the big hurdle of making the technology affordable enough to be viable on a large scale. Impress your friends at the next party by calling solar energy technology photovoltaics.

  • Hydrogen energy: We all know hydrogen power is the way of the future: clean, carbon-free, and environmentally friendly. I assumed someone was working on making it a reality, but I had no idea who or how. GE says the biggest challenge is finding solutions to store hydrogen on a large scale. It thinks the answer is metal hydride storage, whatever that means.

  • Cleaner coal: GE is exploring how to improve the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle system (IGCC for short), which will help convert coal into a cleaner-burning fuel. I'm not a scientist myself, but my vote would be to stop burning coal altogether.

  • Geothermal heat: This involves generating electricity from heat sources within 3-5 kilometers of the Earth's crust. It's pretty hot down there.

Making money from green
I don't want the technical jargon to cause your eyes to glaze over, so let's move on to what investors care about -- making money. When the initiative was launched in 2005, GE had 17 "ecomagination" certified products. By the end of 2006 they had 30, with an additional 10 in pending status. The company has a rigorous process to certify that products both:

  1. Improve a customer's operating performance or value proposition.
  2. Measurably improve a customer's environmental performance.

GE calls this "green is green," meaning that the development of environmentally-advanced products will grow revenues and earnings. The full list of ecomagination-certified products is available here.

Remember the goal of more than $20 billion in 2010 revenues from ecomagination products? GE started with $6 billion in 2004, but grew revenue to an estimated $11 billion in 2006. It appears well on its way to making the goal. Investors will no doubt look forward to some additional green in GE's pockets from these initiatives.

People make the difference
This doesn't happen on its own; it takes people. GE has four Global Research Centers located in China, Germany, India, and New York. Worldwide, the company has more than 25,000 technologists and 2,500 scientists staffing these research centers. They act as dedicated resources for ongoing R&D projects and support individual business units in development efforts.

Although I don't know exactly what a technologist is, it makes me feel better to know that GE has more than 2,500 of them working to make my life better. And it doesn't bother me a bit that GE expects to make money from that. After all, industrial companies have been making money from us for the past 100 years while they polluted the environment. Turnabout is fair play. To me, it seems that GE is doing as much as anyone to help the environment. Now, if it could just stop my light bulbs from burning out....

Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. For more on the virtues of value investing, come join us free for 30-days.

Want ideas for environmentally-friendly investments?

Fool contributor Timothy M. Otte recycles investment wisdom from his home in Dallas. He welcomes comments on his articles and owns shares of Wal-Mart, but none of the other companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has an evergreen disclosure policy.


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