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The question came at the end of the tour and the student prefaced it by saying the inquiry may be silly.
Crowded around the conference table at McCormick Motors, Goshen College students were taking on the role of consultants to help the Chevrolet dealership become more energy efficient. Specifically, the class was looking for ways the business could cut its electricity consumption rather than waiting for a mandate or strategy from the federal government.
Hunched over the table, the student asked if the trains that run along the tracks behind the dealership's property produce wind that could be turned into energy.
Gorton More, vice president of McCormick, told the student his question was not silly and that wasted energy was the most under-used resource. He then talked about how harnessing the tidal flow could produce electricity.
At Moore's direction, McCormick Motors has already implemented several measures to decrease its energy usage and its impact on the environment. In April 2007 the company received national recognition for its conservation methods, being selected as one of three national finalists for the Dealer Innovation Award.
Now Moore was trying to cut electrical use even more by installing either solar panels or wind turbines. Although the panels and turbines would generate power, Moore had a hunch that neither was economically feasible with the Alternative Power & Energy Grant Program from the Indiana Office of Energy and Defense Development.
Consequently, he was calling upon the college students to research alternative energy and give him suggestions on what to do. He also reminded them of one key constraint.
"Keep in mind when I'm doing all this," he said, "I'm also trying to run a business."
One special component of the APE grant is the educational requirement. The program gives matching funds to help with the purchase and installation of alternative energy systems that not only offset the use of fossil fuel but also encourage public education. People should learn something about the environment, conservation and other forms of energy from the entities that receive the grant.
That is why Moore turned to Goshen College.
The students in the three-week Senior Seminar Course, taught by Jerrell Ross Richer, associate professor of economics, undertook the task.
From the beginning, the students did not want to be "yes-men," said Tyler Springer. Instead, they wanted to take a critical view and give Moore a realistic assessment of his alternative energy plans.
NO ONE WOULD GUESS
Moore, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, enjoyed acareer in the Army before retiring in 1997 as a colonel. As a military man, he admitted, he just had to order fuel for it to appear, and emission levels were never a concern but a "whack over the head" changed his outlook.
At that time, his uncle was president of McCormick Motors when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency slapped the company with a $75,000 fine for improperly disposing of motor oil. The dealership was not illegally dumping the used oil in a field, but the private company the dealership contracted with was.
When Moore left the military and joined McCormick, he eliminated that liability by installing a furnace that burns the waste oil and, in turn, generates heat for the entire facility.
Since then, Moore and his staff have taken a variety of energy-saving, environmentally friendly steps. The dealership planted 120 trees along the railroad tracks. Along with beautifying the surroundings and cutting the noise, the trees capture dust stirred up by the passing trains. Without the daily dose of dust, the cars and trucks for sale on the lot do not need to be washed as often, reducing water consumption.
The standard conservation methods like recycling cardboard, metal, tires, batteries and wooden pallets, replacing incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency lighting and adding insulation have all been done. Also implemented are non-typical measures like hanging metal mesh curtains in the windows to reflect the sun in the summer and retain the heat in the winter, installing timers on the air compressors in the service department and putting the outside lights on timers so they turn off after normal working hours.
"If you drive by here, you have no idea," Moore said. "No one would guess all the things we have done."
Even with these steps, the dealership has seen its electricity bills rise, offsetting other savings.
Since 1999, the dealership has grown significantly, increasing sales 500 percent, square-footage 25 percent and number of employees 30 percent. The conservation steps taken by McCormick Motors have cut its use of natural gas by 75 percent but its electric usage is up 70 percent and its total energy costs have climbed from $43,000 to $57,000.
Moore acknowledged the energy bills could be higher if the business had not implemented the environmental measures.
Moore's next goal is to generate some of its own electricity. Geothermal was quickly ruled out as too costly, but solar and wind power with panels installed across the roof or a few turbines placed along the roof line remain an option.
Except for that pesky bottom line. Wind turbines take 50 years and solar panels 35 years before the investment reaps a return.
"I'm 56," Moore said. "A 35-year payback is not really interesting to me."
NOT FINANCIALLY FEASIBLE
America's addiction to oil coupled with the rise in price of fossil fuels has created an economic and environmental threat that is actually an opportunity. And, Richer, the Goshen professor, is looking to businesses, rather than the government, to take the lead in providing the solutions.
"My first reaction is this is what we need to do," Richer said. "We are only going to make our economy sustainable if we get businesses to invest. This is where the action is. This is the change we need to make.
The economist has done "green" research for businesses before, and he said tucking himself in his campus office and doing all the work would have been easier than involving the seminar students. Guiding the students and letting them do the work was "challenging and stimulating" for Richer and ultimately, "there were times the students went way beyond what I could have done."
Attacking the project, the students divided the work and examined types of solar panels and wind turbines, environmental concerns, electricity rates and tax credits -- keeping in mind it had to be financially viable.
At the end of the three weeks, the students presented their findings to the retired colonel.
There were no yes-men in the class. In fact, the students concluded that, at this time, it is not financially feasible for McCormick Motors to install solar panels or wind turbines without the Alternative Power & Energy grant.
However, the students advised Moore not to abandon his plans. If the electric rate increases, then the renewable energy systems Moore is considering may make economical sense even without the grant.
LOT OF FUN
A retired colonel who runs a car dealership asked a group of college students for advice. He showed them his business, explained his environmental measures, took them to lunch and told them no questions were silly.
In return, Moore received a great deal of information from the students to help him as he prepares the APE grant application. Perhaps inspired by the students, he is applying for the wind turbines and the solar panels, hoping he will be able to install the two types of devices side-by-side. Then he will collect the data to determine if turbines or panels do better in Northern Indiana, which on average does not see much sunlight or wind.
"Whether I get a grant or not," Moore said, "this has been a lot of fun for me."