Whirlpool Makes the Case for Onsite Wind Power: Q&A with Ron Voglewede

Whirlpool Makes the Case for Onsite Wind Power: Q&A with Ron Voglewede

The business case for onsite wind generation might not seem as obvious as the one for adding solar.

Yet at a time when companies are adding photovoltaics to their operations in parts of the United States better known for harsh winters than abundant sunshine, Whirlpool has been adding wind turbines to factories in Ohio.

“It does have huge benefits,” says Ron Voglewede, Whirlpool’s global sustainability leader, who has been with the home appliance company for 23 years. This renewable source is visible to factory workers, even from miles away, he pointed out. “There’s a sense of pride when you walk in and see the turbine running in the morning, knowing your machine is running off that power.”

Recently we caught up with Voglewede to learn more about Whirlpool’s approach to renewables, including onsite wind generation.

What is Whirlpool’s renewable energy strategy?

Our strategy is a little different from most. The idea is to maximize the resources onsite, potentially extend that offsite, and then look at a purchasing agreement as a last resort.

We have absolute emissions goals that start from carbon and work back so we needed to have a comprehensive strategy versus trying to pick off things individually. Having said that, we are trying to more than double the use of renewable energy in our portfolio year-over-year, and we’ve done that continuously for the last three years.

Where we do renewable energy onsite, we try to get over 20%. In Ohio, we’re around 15% at one of our larger facilities in Findlay, where we have multiple wind turbines, and as high as 70% from onsite wind generation in Greenville, where we make all of our KitchenAid stand mixers.

Why onsite wind power?

We took a pragmatic science-based approach to studying solar, wind, geothermal, and combined heat and power. We’ve been watching this for a while, looking for that convergence curve where technology costs come down.

In India and Southern China, where we have operations, solar makes sense. Our first foray into onsite was actually at a distribution center in Perris, California, that’s more than a million square feet. The 10-MW rooftop solar installation is one of the largest in the United States.

If you think about traditional renewable energy sources, the center of the US is good for wind. Wind is just cheaper and we have a lot of plants in the plains. We’re a Midwestern company. Wind is also one where some innovative companies happened to be right in our backyard in Findlay. One Energy was just starting up and we took a chance on each other.

What was the process like for adding wind turbines?

The hardest part in the early stages was overcoming internal myths: “Hey we looked at this for our manufacturing sites five years ago and it was really expensive.” Well in five years the cost went down 70%, and energy went up 20%. At any given site in the US, it’s been going up an average of 2-3% per year.

Once you get past that, there’s a lot of regulation — everything from shadow flicker and nesting sites to siting issues at the municipal level. Some of these regulations are based on outdated information, too. Noise used to be a big issue, but noise is the waste. Most wind turbines have become much more efficient.

How did you navigate these challenges?

It’s key to have a cross-functional team and an open mind with honest dialogue. And a good partner you trust. Are we looking at every angle? Are we making sure that we’re involving people early in the process?

Some people don’t want to say anything until they have all the answers. You need to take a more open approach: “This is what we’re looking at. Are there any concerns we need to know upfront?” Get things out on the table early so you can address them. We have facilities that dominate small communities so it needs to be a joint project.

You also have to build internal knowledge. We tracked prices, looked at technologies, and understood the basics of the marketplace to ask relevant questions.

Have there been times where you were glad you had onsite renewable generation?

We have facilities in India where power outages are frequent. With these latest heat waves it was over 50°C and roads were melting. Having the solar and being able to run important safety mechanisms that rely on power is critical.

One surprise in this process is that when you’re drawing your own power behind the meter, it’s super clean voltage and amperage. The power is directly inverted from DC to AC onsite. The right frequency has benefits for large capital equipment that costs tens of millions of dollars. We haven’t quantified the benefits yet, but we know they’re there.

Any advice for other C&I leaders considering onsite renewables?

Do your investigations. Look at your onsite profile. Find out where the industry is in real terms, not what’s on TV. You might be surprised about the positive perceptions within your company. Then have early involvement for all stakeholders. That’s hard to do and takes time, but it’s like product design. Put your resources at the front to design it right, not at the end to fix it.

Work with everything in your corporation from facilities and real estate to finance and engineering. If you have an engineering function, don’t be afraid to get their thoughts. Their job is to look at technology.

The renewables industry is now in a place where, unsubsidized, it is extremely effective and has a broader range than many realize. This is not a fad or a trend. This is the new reality, and it’s going to change how you manage your energy.

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