GM Sells Security

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GM is in the business of selling vehicles.  They also usually make them.  Anticipating objections to this business was the object of GM’s recent announcement of a “definitive agreement” with ABB, a back-up power and energy storage company.  For most, an “electric vehicle” means a battery car. Some question if electric vehicles are truly “clean.”  GM wants us to imagine with confidence where batteries go when they “naturally die.”

This was not a concern for GM as they owned their electromotive division from 1930 to 2005 and produced about 30% of the worlds diesel-electric series hybrid, railroad locomotives. Those vehicles were never expected to get power from the grid — they didn’t need battery storage and the customers were commercial buyers. It was also not a concern with the EV1, which started off life with lead-acid batteries. Those batteries are over 95% recycled, and GM has this high standard to follow or be judged against. From that time, the world has moved forward through the “Inconvenient Truth” of carbon emissions and we are more generally concerned about sustainability. GM is anticipating a question will be asked and needs to tell us “where” and “how” in preparing its “obituary” for the Volt battery.

For a vehicle that uses batteries, the energy density is an important consideration. Batteries hold the energy that eventually moves the vehicle. A heavier vehicle requires more energy than a lighter vehicle. Batteries, like people, tend to lose capacity as they age. They increasingly become more dead weight. The energy capacity may fall off quickly at first but then levels off for a long, predictable, and valuable period. Between 8 and 10 years, the batteries may be reduced to around 70% (or less) of their like-new capacity. This will have a direct impact on the range of the vehicle and it is anticipated that this will inevitably lead to an out-with-the-old and in with some new batteries.

Eventually, batteries will either have to be recycled or sent to landfill.  The surprise is that, after the Volt, these batteries will be neither old nor useless but, in fact, only middle-aged and set for a career change. The spark of life is found in their expected additional 5000 cycles or about 15 years of use for situations where weight and volume are not concerns. Non-mobile energy storage possibilities include opportunities as a UPS in data centers, time-shifting energy usage for the lowest cost and frequency regulation for utilities.

With ABB, GM has created a demonstration of this idea, that has been trying to escape the web for a while. They are now looking for a utility to set up a pilot project. GM provides existing batteries, and ABB its existing inverters and controls.

Technology inspires the imagination as ideas made manifest. Marketing also trades in ideas and imagination. Not content with the technology, GM also gives a way to consider it. GM once  presented us with its “new car technology,” gave us the term “range anxiety” and the solution for this neurosis:  The Volt.  They even tried to trademark the term.  Somewhere within their marketing machinery they have decided that security sells vehicles. Now, we are told that this midlife battery crisis will resolve as: “Recent research conducted by GM predicts that secondary use of 33 Volt batteries will have enough storage capacity to power up to 50 homes for about four hours during a power outage.”  This sounds great.  After all power outages are a lot like running out of fuel.

But, during a recent tele-conference, it was pointed out that prospective PV installaters must make a decision to build a system with a battery back-up or a grid connection, not both. Utility owners don’t want their workers exposed to an unknown source of power on the lines during power failures. (Back-up generators have transfer switches that disconnect the grid during power failures.)  At this point, GM representatives agreed that this phrase was only a way to characterize the potential power. It is an image, an idea, of security, and it is going to be slowly developed over the next 8 years. For now, Pablo Valentia, GM’s new battery life cycle manager tells us that they are only looking to “having the [volt battery] secondary use position fulfilled.”

For some, GM may be like that kid with the rich Dad, all the toys and a self-centered nature.  In the final tally, we may not like their attitude, we may doubt their motives, but we have to appreciate their technique. Sales technique doesn’t mean that they are wrong or don’t recognize good ideas.  And if GM can sell us on electric vehicles what may be good for GM may also be “good for the country.”

Related articles:

  1. Green Sparks Fly as GE and GM Boost Energy Efficiency
  2. Chevy Volt Owners Will Say Buh-Bye to Car Chargers in 2012
  3. Chevy Volt Plays Santa with Green Jobs

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