Portland, Maine, Laundry Uses Solar Energy; Other Firms Go Green, Too

The temperature dipped into the 30s and gray clouds swarmed high in the sky one recent afternoon, but the few hours of sunlight that peeked through were sufficient to generate enough hot water for a busy night at the Washboard Laundry.

PORTLAND, Me. − The temperature dipped into the 30s and gray clouds swarmed high in the sky one recent afternoon, but the few hours of sunlight that peeked through were sufficient to generate enough hot water for a busy night at the Washboard Laundry.

The Portland-based laundry uses solar panels on its roof to heat a 300-gallon tub of water, aiding a natural-gas heater in warming water. The solar heater reduces the gas bill by an estimated 65 percent.

"The sun can keep up with our consumption," said Jason Wentworth, Washboard's owner. "It's a very efficient match."

Wentworth is not the only one matching environmental concerns with business smarts. An increasing number of Maine companies are saving money while watching out for the environment.

"Companies are becoming smarter," said Julie Churchill of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. "More companies, universities are coming to the plate. We are getting more applications from companies looking to participate in our environmental programs."


It's a national trend. Companies big and small have begun to pay close attention to environmental concerns: Starbucks rewards coffee suppliers who treat their land with less chemicals. Staples purchases recycled products and promotes recycling days where customers can turn in their used inkjet cartridges.

In Maine, the DEP recently honored 18 companies for helping to protect the environment, a major increase over the two recognized in 1993, said Churchill.

"Society has become more socially responsible, and industry customers are looking at environmental-friendly products," she said.

It pays to be environmentally conscious because some companies refuse to work with others if they do not meet certain environmental standards, said Dick Hall, environmental manager at National Semiconductor Corp.

"A number of customers such as Nokia would not work with us unless we had a compliant environmental management system," said Hall.

California-based National Semiconductor has a fabrication plant in South Portland that employs about 650 people. The company was one of the businesses recently recognized by the DEP.

National has plans for reducing its pollution by 30 percent. The company also started cutting its energy by making its steam-based heating system more efficient. National fixed leaks in the system, which, in turn, reduced oil and natural gas used to heat its plant. Last year, the repairs saved 173,162 gallons of fuel oil, or $138,529, for the company.

In addition to saving money, said Hall, making the plants more environmentally friendly is good corporate stewardship. That intangible is becoming increasingly linked to a company's market performance.

"The stock market looks unfavorably on companies doing the wrong thing," he said. "You don't want to be on the front page of the paper for doing the wrong thing."

At General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products in Saco, the company has reduced the hazardous chemicals used to make the military's weapons. The company, a subsidiary of Virginia-based General Dynamics, makes a variety of gun systems for aircraft and tanks.

The company started using porous pots to reduce impurities in chrome for its weapon production. The porous pot uses an electrical treatment that recovers reusable chrome. The company reduced chrome-based waste by 95 percent last year, said Scott Belanger, senior environment health and safety specialist.

The extra money spent on the pots and time spent cleaning the chrome are worth it, said Belanger.

"It's cost effective by saving on liabilities for handling the chrome," Belanger said. "It's a smart business cycle."

Naval shipbuilder Bath Iron Works has had a major environmental plan in place since 2002. BIW, also a subsidiary of General Dynamics, signed up with a DEP program to improve the environment by reducing a specific amount of waste by 2006. As part of the program, BIW separates used solvent from paint waste and distills it. The recovered solvent is then reused to clean painting equipment.

The shipyard recovered more than 4,400 gallons of solvent last year. In another aspect of the program, the company said it reduced solid waste by 10 percent and hazardous waste by 16 percent last year.

"Our philosophy is that what is good for the environment is good for our business," said Jim DeMartini, spokesman for BIW.

Not all companies are so lucky in getting fast returns on their green initiatives. Wentworth, the laundry owner, spent more than $6,000 for his solar water heater and doesn't expect to pay it off for five more years. To shave costs, he put the heater together himself.

"You can look at the hard dollar terms and see how much did we spend and how much will we save," Wentworth said. "I think the calculations have to go beyond that and look at the environmental impact. I want to be an example in finding less destructive ways to live on the earth."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News