Heroes & zeros: vol. 11

GM headquarters in Detroit
GM headquarters in Detroit

Hero: General Motors

General Motors announced in July that it generated over $1 billion from recycling and reuse revenue in 2012. With 90 per cent of waste from its manufacturing facilities currently being recycled, the company has been able to monetize some streams of waste. It now boasts 105 factories that are landfill-free, with a goal of reaching 125 facilities by 2020. Much of the gains were achieved through material substitution. Replacing wood pallets with reusable plastic pallets in several facilities resulted in over 500 tons in waste reduction annually, while the increased use of robotics has slashed paint thinner use by 200 tons. Since 2010, the total waste per vehicle built by GM has declined by 55 pounds, while the average per-ton cost of waste reduced has declined by 92 per cent.

Looking to expand research and development into hydrogen fuel cells, GM also announced a seven-year partnership with Honda in July. “We are convinced this is the best way to develop this important technology, which has the potential to help reduce the dependence on petroleum and establish sustainable mobility,” stated GM chairman and CEO Dan Akerson.

The two companies have ranked first and second in the world in fuel-cell patents over the past 10 years, and are aiming to launch their first joint product by 2020. The U.S. Department of Defense, an enthusiastic proponent of reducing its reliance on fossil fuel, is likely to be a silent partner in this alliance. The U.S. Army launched the world’s largest military vehicle fleet powered by fuel cells last year in partnership with GM in Hawaii, and is currently exploring other ways to expand this nascent industry.

Although much of the company’s sustainability bona fides originate from the Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle released in 2010, GM was the first major U.S. auto manufacturer to sign the Climate Declaration earlier this year.

Established by Ceres, an investor-focused environmental advocacy group, it is “a statement calling on U.S. policymakers to capture the American economic opportunities of addressing climate change.” For GM, this is a significant shift away from a petroleum industry once counted as one of its greatest allies.

Zero: Sinovel Wind Group

Chinese company Sinovel Wind Group and two of its senior executives were indicted in June on charges of industrial espionage following a two-year investigation by the FBI. Sinovel, a company that at its peak was the second-largest turbine manufacturer in the world, stands accused of stealing the source code provided by American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC), a Massachusetts-based energy technologies firm. Dejan Karabasevic, a former employee of AMSC, pled guilty in 2011 to downloading the code and transferring it to Sinovel. The suit claims that the stolen code was eventually inserted into more than 1,000 turbines sold around the world. In a particularly brazen move, four Sinovel turbines containing the stolen material were installed in Massachusetts. “We have worked with law enforcement to verify that these Sinovel-manufactured wind turbines contain AMSC’s stolen intellectual property,” said Daniel P. McGahn, AMSC’s president in a statement. The company is seeking $800 million in damages. Litigation is also underway in the Chinese court system, with the Chinese Supreme People’s Court reviewing several civil suits brought forth by AMSC. Other problems facing the company include an ongoing China Securities Regulatory Commission investigation, which is examining a suspected breach in securities laws.

The simmering dispute between the two firms has unfolded as American authorities have grown increasingly alarmed with Chinese industrial espionage efforts. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his concerns to Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in June, explaining that “large-scale theft” of U.S. property is hindering relations between the two countries.

A report compiled by 14 U.S. intelligence agencies in November unearthed a sophisticated Chinese government-supported industrial espionage campaign. It estimated in May that illegal technology transfers are costing the U.S. economy over $300 billion annually. The authors of Chinese Industrial Espionage, a new book written by industry experts, contend that Chinese authorities began to focus on American private sector intellectual property about five years ago while in the midst of a domestic innovation drive. “Chinese cyber-hacking has been going on for a long time,” author James Mulvenon told PBS in July. “What’s new is that we’re finally fed up and trying to do something about it.”

Click here to view our complete Heroes and Zeros series.

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