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Green Technology Is Paying Off for GE

By Daniel B. Kline – Mar 5, 2014 at 2:54PM

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General Electric has invested huge dollars in going green with even huger payoffs.

Maybe Kermit the Frog was at least partially wrong. It may not be easy being green, but it sure is lucrative.

General Electric (GE -2.81%) has announced it will invest an additional $10 billion in cleaner technology research and development between now and 2020.

"Since its 2005 launch, ecomagination – the company's commitment to technology solutions that save money and reduce environmental impact for its customers and GE's own operations – has generated more than $160 billion in revenue," according to a GE press release. "GE's own operations have seen a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2004 and a 47% reduction in freshwater use since 2006, realizing $300 million in savings."

How much has GE spent so far?
When the company launched the ecomagination initiative, it pledged to spend $15 billion on the project by 2015. GE has spent $12 billion to date, putting the company on track to hit its 2015 goal. The added $10 billion through 2020 will bring the total investment to $25 billion.

"Ecomagination is one of our most successful cross-company business initiatives. Bold investments in ecomagination research and development have resulted in strong returns for shareholders and improved cost and emissions savings for our customers," CEO Jeff Immelt said in a press release.

Where does GE spend all that money?
The new investment, according to GE, will advance research in:

  • Natural gas: develop alternative technologies to replace water in the hydraulic fracturing process.
  • Renewable energy: reduce the cost and increase the output of GE wind turbines to lower wind power generation costs.
  • Power plants: innovate and advance solutions to increase power plant efficiencies.
  • Reducing GHG emissions, freshwater use, and improving energy efficiency of GE operations: GE has reduced GHG emissions by 34% since 2004 and freshwater use by 47% since 2006. Building off this success, GE is committing to reduce GHG emissions and freshwater use by 20% (from the 2011 baseline) by 2020.

Is it really green?
Fracking, the process of getting natural gas out of the ground through hydraulic fracturing, has been widely criticized by environmentalists. Greening the natural gas business will be a key focus of the continuing ecomagination effort. Still, with much of GE's money going toward the traditional fossil fuel market (instead of renewable energy), the plan will not necessarily be roundly applauded by the pro-environment community.

"It seems doubtful that these kinds of fossil-fuel-fixated research projects will appear particularly eco-imaginative in the eyes of solar and wind power advocates," wrote Jeff St. John on "Nor would it appear that environmental groups opposed to fracking on broader principles of its impact on climate change will support efforts to make it more cost-effective or less water-hungry."

Patrick Morris, an entrepreneur pursuing greener energy through water remediation at fracking sites and who is also CEO at Hagin Investment Management, told the Fool that while natural gas is a key component of any alternative energy strategy in the United States, the problem is that it is greener, but not technically a green source of energy.

"Clearly there are benefits in terms of emissions over coal, but there is still a significant emissions profile in the form of carbon dioxide," he told the Fool. "The green alternatives like solar, hydro, wind, and nuclear cannot currently replace the base electrical generation load due to the uncertainty of the on-demand supply, or in the case of nuclear, the post-Fukushima reminder that it can be pretty darn dangerous."

GE makes a smart play
"The future of green energy is probably a combination of natural gas combined with better transmission efficiency, point source storage, and a greater focus on consumer behavior," Morris told the Fool.

In making a huge investment in green energy technology, GE has not only made a clearly sound financial move but also a strong public relations one. Would you rather be ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) peddling fossil fuel, or a company pouring money into (and reaping profits from) greener (if not entirely green) methods?

While environmentalists can argue whether GE is green enough or question the company's motives, the reality is that spending billions to get greener benefits everyone. Sure it would be lovely if GE spent billions figuring out how to derive energy from lollipops and unicorns but until that become viable, investing $25 billion in making the world a little better for everyone (while making a ton of money) should be saluted.

Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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