GM’s Energy Manager Relates Upbringing to Upkeep of Environment

Jul 14, 2014 11:45 AM ET


Al Hildreth grew up in the Detroit area at a time when our rivers and streams were nothing to write home about.

“Observing the poor quality of our waterways led me to sign up for environmental courses when I went away to college,” he said. “I wanted to make a positive impact on the environment when I emerged with a degree.”

Indeed, Al and his family spent many summers at his uncle’s farm in northern Minnesota. It was there that he gained an appreciation for our natural resources. It was a far cry from venturing into the Rouge River at a time when the pollutants in the water were plentiful enough to stain clothing.

“It was so bad that I had to throw away my clothes after I ventured into the river,” said Hildreth.

Upon graduating from Oakland University with a degree in engineering, Hildreth began working for a company in research & development that designed and manufactured air pollution control equipment. He did some testing at a GM foundry and elsewhere at a hazardous waste incinerator. The foundry was his first exposure to the automaker, which eventually led to a job.

“The environmental engineering career path was still in its infancy in the 70s,” said Hildreth. “It existed, but it has since expanded as I saw more ways I could insert my expertise.”

This led to assignments in Asia and Europe where Hildreth worked with counterparts in those regions to come up with best practices for carbon and energy management within GM, that he then passed on to his North America colleagues.

Today Al oversees all of the company’s energy management practices.  That also includes carbon, overseeing energy and water conservation efforts at facilities across the globe, and managing the team that is responsible for energy use at all facilities.

“By working on a global scale, my team is able to save money for GM through carbon, energy, and water conservation projects. We discover and share all of the best practices globally,” he said. “Since the company spends more than $1 billion on utilities, there are still lots of energy savings opportunities that remain.”

His work has led to GM being recognized as a leader in energy efficiency, including earning the ENERGY STAR® Partner of the Year Award three years running, as well as helping more than half of GM’s manufacturing facilities to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Challenge for Industry.

It is Al’s dedication and success integrating energy efficiency across the globe that has led to these accolades, but it all comes back to how it ties into the company’s overall sustainability efforts.

“Sustainability means balancing our actions across three pillars: economy, environment, and society. When one of those legs in the three-legged stool is not in balance, the entire idea falls apart,” said Hildreth.

Regularly working with NGOs, suppliers and customers has been beneficial to the company and Al. Those conversations bring a fresh new perspective on the state of the entire value chain. GM doesn’t work on an island. They need involvement from all parties to ensure they are maximizing their investment in the environment.

“With the population expanding, environmental sustainability will become essential for our survival, not just a popular business ethic,” said Hildreth.

Even though GM cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half over the last two decades, there is still more work to be done. New technologies and methods will be required to achieve GM’s aggressive commitment of a 20 percent reduction by 2020 over a 2010 baseline. This is on top of what the company has already achieved.

“At my age, I want to instill in the next generation of energy engineers a desire to protect the environment as well as enhance our profitability,” said Hildreth.

But if that doesn’t work, he can always rely on his grandkids.

In the movie “The Lorax”, a once pristine land has been contaminated so that the citizens of Thneedville don’t want for anything.  Deforestation has led to the creation of this walled city made up entirely of artificial things.

It’s a thinly veiled plot to show how damaged the world might become if we don’t act sustainably.

“My grandkids seem interested in my job since we have watched this movie together numerous times,” states Hildreth. “It allows me to relate to them what I do for a living in a way that they can understand.”