Legrand Flips the Switch on Sustainable Energy

Last week I watched Legrand “flip the switch” on its latest investment in sustainability, a 500kW, solid-oxide fuel cell system for providing cleaner and more efficient power to its North American headquarters in Connecticut.
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Legrand's ceremonial switch and shiny new fuel cell from Bloom
Nestled discreetly in the heart of a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Hartford, CT, Legrand’s North American Headquarters wears the same brick façade it did when the building was constructed more than 100 years ago. A retired smoke stack harkens to a time when environmentalism was hardly even an academic prospect. In the shadow of the sooty relic lies Legrand’s latest step toward a more sustainable future: a 500kW, solid-oxide fuel cell.

Expected to produce up to 88 percent of the electricity used by the 263,000-square-foot facility, the fuel cell harnesses energy from natural gas in a combustion-free electrochemical process. Bloom, the cell's manufacturer, was not inclined to explain the process in more detail. Purportedly, the cell’s only waste product will be hydrogen and water. The cells require a sand-like powder instead of precious metals, which is cheaper and more efficient than conventional fuel cells.

The event itself was a bit like a walking Disney tour, as members of the media were herded about Legrand’s facility and experience center, guided by flashing lights and audio cues. Thankfully, we were soon joined by the minds behind Legrand’s latest sustainability efforts, which kicked off the festivities with some insight into the company’s conservation philosophies.

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The sheer number of distinct initiatives was impressive, ranging from sub-meters that measure power consumption in each room, to more efficient refrigerators in staff rooms. A lot of hopeful-sounding numbers were thrown at us in rapid succession, but one in particular stuck in my mind: the fuel cell system produces, on average, 50 percent less CO2 than the U.S. grid. Credible scientists agree that CO2 is the most harmful of the greenhouse gases, contributing significantly to global climate change. My emotional takeaway: If every U.S. manufacturing operation followed Legrand’s lead, we might avoid surf season in Vermont. John Selldorf, CEO of Legrand North & Central America, summed up Legrand’s perspective succinctly:

“We, as a company, also try to walk the talk,” he said. “We really believe that you have to invest and pay attention, and when you do, you can have a big impact.”

You might have pictured the kind of fuel cell to be lugged, glowing and enticingly neon, down a clanking metal corridor to a neat slot in a starship's guts. Disappointingly, the real thing isn’t going anywhere without a crane.

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(from left) Bill Luchon, senior manufacturing engineer, Electrical Wiring Systems; Susan Rochford, VP, Sustainability; Ravi Ramanathan, president, Electrical Wiring Systems; John Selldorf, CEO, Legrand NA

A crowd of Legrand employees came out to witness the symbolic event (the switch itself was impressive in size and attached to absolutely nothing). After a brief round of speeches, the principle architects of the project pulled the switch with a satisfying clang, ringing in what I hope historians will remember as a new era of sustainable manufacturing.

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