Manufacturers have been studying their energy bills lately, and a growing number are discovering that they can save money by getting some-or even all-of their power from alternative energy sources.

Right about now, those of us who live in the Midwest are looking at their heating and electricity bills with some trepidation. (As I write this, the forecasted low for Chicago is -5 F.)

Manufacturers have been studying their energy bills lately, too, and a growing number are discovering that they can save money by getting some-or even all-of their power from alternative energy sources.

Consider Crayola Crayons. Last year, the company installed 26,000 solar panels at its factory in Easton, PA. The panels will produce 1.9 megawatts of electricity annually. That’s about 10 percent of the plant’s electricity needs, or enough to produce a third of the 3 billion crayons it makes each year. Funded in part by federal stimulus money, the project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,900 tons annually-the equivalent of removing 325 cars from the road.

Other manufacturers have also seen the light. General Motors’ plant in Zaragosa, Spain, is topped with 85,000 solar panels covering 2 million square feet. The installation produces 15.1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to power 4,475 homes. Audi’s assembly plant in Ingolstadt, Germany, and Lamborghini’s factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, also get some of their power from the sun.

For other manufacturers, the answer to lower energy bills is blowing in the wind. Kettle Foods installed 18 wind turbines on the roof of its potato chip factory in Beloit, WI. In normal conditions, the turbines generate 28,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, enough to produce 56,000 bags of potato chips.

That’s no small potatoes. Lots of manufacturers are taking advantage of wind power. At Nissan’s assembly plant in Sunderland, U.K., six 200-foot wind turbines supply 10 percent of the factory’s overall power needs. In 2009, S.C. Johnson & Son commissioned a windmill to power its largest factory in Europe. Located in Mijdrecht, The Netherlands, the plant gets 66 percent of its electricity from the 262-foot-tall turbine.

Lower energy bills and a smaller carbon footprint aren’t the only benefits of alternative energy projects. With a well-crafted marketing message, forward-thinking companies can capitalize on growing consumer sentiment toward earth-friendly products.

For example, Frito Lay makes SunChips with the help of solar energy at a factory in Modesto, CA. The factory is connected to an array of concave mirrors covering four acres of land. The mirrors heat water for a boiler system that helps cook the chips. Making the snacks requires some 14.6 billion BTUs of heat annually, which is about what the mirrors produce.

By marketing its ecofriendly manufacturing process, Frito Lay grew sales of SunChips by 17.6 percent in 2008 and tripled its household penetration over the past four years.

We applaud all manufacturers that have gone off-grid, and we urge those that haven’t to explore the merits of alternative energy technologies. You, too, may see the light.