Inside Panasonic's B2B energy play

Panasonic wields enormous influence globally when it comes to technologies for energy-efficient lighting, refrigeration, heating, air-conditioning and renewable energy production.

One not-so-subtle reminder: The first thing you may notice at Panasonic's new North America headquarters is the logo-splashed Tesla electric vehicle parked strategically near the front door. That's because Panasonic's Japanese parent company supplies lithium-ion batteries for the Tesla Roadster, Model S and soon the Model X, with a 2-billion-unit commitment over the next four years.

Many of those forward-moving technologies are alive in that 340,000-square-foot building. Leading architecture firm Gensler designed the Newark, N.J. structure, which Panasonic's U.S. operating unit hopes will reduce its carbon footprint by at least 50 percent compared with its previous facility 10 minutes away. Panasonic has applied for a Platinum LEED certification covering the interior and a Gold certification for the exterior.

"The move was engineered specifically to live the commitment to the principles of the company, which are around innovation and collaboration and sustainability," said Betty Noonan, chief marketing officer for Panasonic North America.  

That mantra is being sounded more loudly across the company as Panasonic's 100-year anniversary approaches in 2018 — and as it seeks to diversify away from the increasingly cutthroat (and low-margin) consumer electronics business. Each operating company around the world is encouraged to interpret the eco-mandate in ways most relevant for their unique geographies, Noonan said.

Exhibit A: Panasonic recently adopted a hazard pay policy for workers stationed in polluted Chinese cities.

In the United States, the combined sustainability, innovation and collaboration mandate has lead the company's Eco Solutions group to assume a relatively unique role: one focused on end-to-end management of renewable energy projects for commercial, government and industrial customers.

"My mandate is solution-oriented in that we are focused not on products per se, but in development, engineering, project integration and financing, backend asset management and service," said Jamie Evans, managing director of Panasonic Eco Solutions North America, which reports both to the U.S. operating unit and a global division run out of Osaka, Japan. "That enables us to offer a more customized and innovative message."

A business-to-business powerhouse

Even though the Panasonic brand is well established with consumers, it actually carries even more weight in business-to-business (B2B) channels. According to Noonan, almost 85 percent of the company's annual revenue comes from B2B contracts related to digital signage, avionics, automotive and other industrial applications, not to mention its substantial footprints in lighting controls, energy-efficient appliances and refrigeration equipment, HVAC equipment and solar modules.

Against that backdrop, Panasonic's quest in North America to woo small developers, building management companies and commercial customers makes sense. In early April, the unit created a new organization called Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company that will oversee both Eco Solutions as well as Audio/Visual projects, as well as combinations of technologies from both.

"More than ever, our customers are relying on our ability to deliver integrated solutions that are both creative and made-to-order," said Jim Doyle, named to head the company after serving in the same role for Eco Solutions. "Ultimately, our goal is to engineer custom solutions, by partnering with customers to achieve results that leverage our experience, high-end products, onsite services and engineering know-how."

To date, Eco Solutions — in collaboration with strategic partner Coronal Group — has been involved with roughly 50 solar energy projects that are in varying states of completion, Evans said.

Examples range from the 498-kilowatt ground-mounted display for the University of Colorado at Boulder to a multi-phased arrangement with retail real estate investment trust Macerich that could yield more than 10 megawatts of clean energy capacity across shopping centers in Arizona, California, New York and Connecticut. A new joint venture with Global Investment Renewable will accelerate development of municipal projects. "We're now looking to bring an efficiency and velocity to building and financing these deals," Evans said.

The recent reorganization also will sharpen Panasonic's focus on installations using high-definition LED technologies. The company actually is behind the world's biggest outdoor video display project to date, at the Texas Motor Speedway: the board has an active display area of 20,633 square feet. Panasonic is also behind a similar display at Churchill Downs, home to the famous Kentucky Derby, Noonan said.

Given Panasonic's extensive battery business and its planned experiments with solar and energy storage in Japan, in places such as the Fujisawa Smart Town, which is now under construction, I asked Evans if the U.S. Eco Solutions team will focus on energy storage or energy efficiency initiatives. For now, that's not a priority. "Energy efficiency and batteries and some other capabilities are ones that we are having discussions about at a strategic level and thinking about," he said.

Walking the talk

You can see myriad demonstrations of Eco Solutions technologies and sustainable design principles in action at the 12-story new building in Newark, corporate base for about 800 employees.

Daylight harvesting sensors and controls are used throughout the workspace, while up to 90 percent of the offices and cubicles on any given floor have access to natural lighting. Panasonic solar panels are used on the roof, and low-flow water fixtures and rainwater capture systems have reduced water usage by at least 37 percent vis a vis comparable buildings. Most of the on-site cafeteria is used for customer tours, because Panasonic refrigerators and appliances figure prominently in its green products portfolio. "We're trying to live the creed, live the things that we sell," Noonan said.

Although the building has been occupied only since late summer 2013, Panasonic already has collected two sets of quarterly data measuring the new facility's energy consumption using ISO 14000 systems transferred from Secaucus, N.J. "As of December, we were about 52 percent under what we would have been," said David Thompson, Director of Corporate Environmental Department, Panasonic North America.

Top image of the Panasonic booth at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show by Kobby Dagan via Shutterstock