What’s holding back the global transition to renewable energy? Well, it sure would help if the leader of one of the world’s largest economies would get serious about climate change. As if! Dream on, Klingon. Meanwhile, scores of major US companies are not waiting around for the Commander-in-Chief* to steer the decarbonization ship.
GM is a good example of how US companies are picking up the slack and pushing action on climate change. If you’re thinking this is all about a scattering of rooftop solar installations and on-site wind turbines, guess again. Yesterday CleanTechnica sat down on the phone with GM’s global manager of renewable energy, Rob Threlkeld, and he had some interesting things to say about the next steps for scaling up — and speeding up — decarbonization (following comments edited for clarity and flow).
Taking Renewable Energy To The Next Level
Before we get to the interview, here’s a bit of context for those of you new to the topic.
Early business-sector adopters of renewable energy had one main option: install their own solar panels or wind turbines at their factories, warehouses, and other facilities.
On site renewable energy is still going to be a key factor in decarbonization, but (a) on-site renewables rarely if ever meet the electricity needs of a a large facility, and (b) on-site renewables don’t address the copious amount of energy connected to a company through its supply chain.
The second wave of renewable energy adopters can take advantage of power purchase agreements, enabling them to meet their needs with renewable electricity from far-flung, utility scale wind and solar farms.
That solves problem (a), but it doesn’t address problem (b), the supply chain.
In addition, there’s problem (c), which is that smaller companies often lack the resources and know-how to dip a toe into the power purchase field or, for that matter, invest in on site renewable energy.
Finally, there’s problem (d). As savvy electricity customers withdraw from the main grid, the remaining ratepayers will be left to deal with higher rates. That’s a problem for smaller companies and it’s also a significant economic justice issue for residential ratepayers who don’t have the financial means or the opportunity to invest in renewable energy.
So, what’s next? How can America’s corporate giants get the ball rolling on supply chain decarbonization and help resolve an emerging social problem, to boot?
GM Looks To Utilities
CleanTechnica: GM has set a goal of 100% renewable energy for its global operations by 2050. What are the challenges and opportunities?
Threlkeld: Utilities are beginning to respond to the demands that customers have. We need to scale that up.
We’ve had some success with power purchase agreements but we want to integrate with utilities, and have constructive conversations with them.
Utilities really are the natural aggregator. Renewables are lowest cost solution but the challenge is how to make them accessible to all, not just the large companies but also the supply chain.
No Electricity Customer Left Behind
CleanTechnica: So you’re saying that by nudging utilities toward renewable energy, you can have an impact on your supply chain and the community at large.
Threlkeld: To integrate renewable energy in a sensible way, holistic manner, you have to convince utilities that energy efficiency is important, because it reduces their load.
For GM, the challenge is how do we leverage our scale to accelerate holistic thinking in a way that benefits everyone.
So, you look at additional renewables and DER [distributed energy resources especially wind and solar] coming into the system, and how to replace the existing assets. If you work with the system you can impact how the utilities use their generation assets, and enable them to retire some of their more costly ones.
If you can avoid those next-highest costs, you can stabilize rates.
I’m finding the utilities are wanting that input. They are looking at their aging generation fleets and soliciting input. They’re finding that they can rally many companies to support a new rate plan, an integrated rate plan, and this is moving in the right direction.
Wind Or Solar? Both!
CleanTechnica: Is GM looking more towards wind or solar for decarbonization?
Threlkeld: It’s a balancing of different generation resources. The aim is to drive rate stabilization.
Energy storage as a whole is where solar was about five years ago, and energy storage will address balance, whether it is owned by utilities or distributed energy resources.
CleanTechnica: Once utilities get on board, it seems there is still a business case for on-site renewable energy.
Threlkeld: Yes. In our case, we do on-site and off-site. We do wind procurement, we do pilot battery projects. We are pioneering different solutions in a balanced way.
You can also look at thermal resources. and you can reduce load, or do cogeneration.
We are still looking at solar thermal, but it’s not at scale yet.
The deeper question is how do you advance the technology. Even if you put 10 megawatts of renewable energy on site, it’s still only 10% of overall use.
So, on-site is part of the solution but not the whole solution. The utility is a key part of the solution.
CleanTechnica: Tell us some more about solar thermal. Why hasn’t it taken off yet?
Threlkeld: Renewable electricity has a power purchase mechanism, but renewable thermal is tied more to the facility. There is no financing mechanism for renewable thermal.
A related problem is that electricity is a tradable commodity, but transferring heat is harder to understand.
The Renewable Energy Revolution
CleanTechnica: Overall, what new developments do you find the most exciting, in terms of accelerating decarbonization?
Threlkeld: One thing is the number of companies looking at renewables as their lowest cost option.
The RE 100 initiative now has 152 member companies, and that allows us to drive scale.
Another area is really about the job creation involved in renewable energy projects.
That’s an interesting component in terms of accelerating renewables. What we need to do is highlight the jobs, and highlight the local investment.
These projects involve local investment rural communities. They’re upgrading roads and local schools, and increasing tax revenues.
In other words, another avenue the renewable energy community can highlight regarding power purchase agreements is the local investment.
Through us buying renewable energy, these projects go forward.
A lot of our projects are near our manufacturing sites, so it’s a big impact on communities where we have our manufacturing footprint
What Is This Renewable Thermal Collaborative?
Threlkeld closed out the conversation by emphasizing that his operational renewable energy mission is just one element in CEO Mary Barra’s zero emission plans for GM.
Another important element, of course, is fleet electrification. So far the emphasis is on battery EVs but the company also has a long running hand in fuel cell R&D, including some interesting mashups with the US government.
The hydrogen fuel call angle could help GM — and other auto manufacturers — transition out of petroleum for SUV’s and light duty trucks in the future, but for now it appears that the company is sticking with its diesel lineup.
Speaking of renewable thermal, CleanTechnica will be reaching out to the Renewable Thermal Collaborative to find out where things stand on scaling up renewable heating and cooling systems, so stay tuned.
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Photo: 2017 Bolt EV in production, via GM.
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