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General Electric project manager flips the switch on company's energy efficiencies

By Lauren Davidson

When someone asks Caroline, the 5-year-old daughter of Gretchen Dockter Hancock ’91, what her mom does for a living, she states, “Mommy turns off the lights in the factories.” And in the simplest sense, that’s exactly right.

In 2005, Hancock was working in environmental health and safety for the aviation division of General Electric (GE). That’s when the company launched its Ecomagination program geared toward reducing the company’s massive carbon footprint.

“I thought back to my research in college on climate change, and I went to my boss and said I wanted in,” she recalls. “We had the second- or third-largest carbon footprint in the company when I started, due to testing combustion engines. I got to work on strategies to improve energy efficiency in the manufacturing and testing process.”

Soon an opportunity presented itself for Hancock to play a bigger role in GE’s environmental future—project manager for Corporate Environmental Programs at the GE headquarters in Connecticut. One of her duties is to coordinate and lead the Treasure Hunts—events that empower GE employees to identify energy waste at individual facilities and present sustainable solutions.

One of the first Treasure Hunts was in Lynn, Mass., at one of GE’s largest facilities and home of the country’s first jet engine. “Eighty people met on a Sunday afternoon in October,” Hancock says. “We broke into teams—everyone from guys who turn wrenches to building managers—and went out to observe, using all five senses to understand how energy is wasted in the facility when nothing is being manufactured. The whole process is about asking why: Why are the pumps running? Why are the lights on?”

The group outlined its findings and pinpointed more than 100 areas for improvement. “We identified 20 percent of their energy spending that they could save within a year,” Hancock says. “That kind of awakening is incredibly powerful and can change a culture.”

And it has changed GE’s culture. Through the Treasure Hunt program, the company’s 300 facilities globally have saved millions of dollars and reduced their carbon output by 750,000 metric tons.

“We empower people to step back and look at the situation,” Hancock says. “Once you give people a voice and a stake in what’s going on, it’s incredible what can happen.”

This geology major never would have predicted ending up where she is, but she credits Dickinson with getting her there.

“I fell in love with geology through a freshman course with Noel Potter [professor emeritus of geology] and Jeff Niemitz [professor of geology],” she says. “I spent two years doing student-faculty research in Carlisle and California. The combination of science within a liberal-arts environment is a powerful career tool. I can take technical data and put it into understandable language. I can communicate verbally and in writing. I learned leadership techniques that have helped me advance. When you think about the best you can be, Dickinson brought that out in me.”

Published April 1, 2010