There she goes again. In recent years, General Motors Chair and CEO Mary Barra has shaped the automaker into a renewable energy influencer with an impact on the US energy landscape that extends beyond the factory walls. Apparently she was just getting started. The company has just announced a new carbon-cutting initiative that sets a 100% renewable energy goal by 2025. Yes, 2025. Not 2035, or even 2030. It’s 2025 or bust.
Coming from one of the top industrial employers in the US, the announcement validates President Biden’s ambitious climate goals even as Republicans in Congress continue to hit the kill switch on climate action.
GM Hearts Renewable Energy For Everybody
Barra doesn’t get nearly as much publicity as some other auto industry execs, so before we get into her latest renewable energy plan, let’s take a quick look back at the renewable energy theme she has established for GM.
The basic premise is pretty simple. Rather than focusing on renewable energy projects that only benefit the company’s carbon profile, GM is part of a broader corporate movement to spur renewable energy investments that provide whole-of-economy benefits and influence consumer behavior. Cutting costs for everyone while increasing access and improving reliability across the grid are the end goals.
In 2016 GM joined the global RE100 clean power collaborative and another big step occurred in 2019, when the company became a founding member of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a US organization that leverages corporate purchasing power to accelerate economy-wide decarbonization.
The initial REBA goal was 60 gigawatts of new renewables by 2025. GM helped get the ball rolling in 2019 by putting in for the equivalent of 300,000 megawatt-hours in new wind energy through the Michigan utility DTE.
In a convo with CleanTechnica that year, Rob Threlkeld, GM’s global manager of Sustainable Energy and Supply Reliability, explained that the DTE deal reflects the tandem transformation of both the auto industry and the utility industry, and the adaptation of consumers to the new energy landscape.
Renewable Energy & Consumer Behavior
When the topic turns to the auto industry, the new energy landscape, and consumer behavior, attention naturally turns to electric vehicle charging.
GM had EV charging and consumer behavior on the top of its mind when it introduced the Chevy Volt gas-electric hybrid in 2010. The Volt enabled car buyers to dip a toe in the 100% EV experience while clinging to the safety net of a gas tank at a time when battery technology was limited and charging stations were relatively scarce.
More recently GM has begun pivoting to a 100% EV future, and that doesn’t just mean selling the cars. Providing consumers with access to both charging stations and renewable energy is a key part of GM’s plan.
In 2020, for example, GM announced a new 500,000 megawatt-hour solar energy commitment through DTE, and it hooked up with the company EVgo to install more than 2,700 public fast charging stations around the country. Earlier this year GM also inked a deal to splash digital EV advertising all over Volta charging stations in key markets, aimed at reaching 70 million potential car buyers.
More Renewable Energy For The Clean Car Of The Future
GM’s triple-whammy approach of electric cars, renewable energy, and charging stations is getting picked up by utilities that are eager to sell more kilowatts. The gigantic utility Xcel Energy, for example, has just established a new incentive program to encourage its ratepayers to buy more electric vehicles.
The problem is that Excel’s stable of power plants still runs on a heavy dose of fossil energy, and that’s where the new GM renewable energy initiative comes in.
Today’s 100% clean power announcement by GM includes a partnership with the carbon tracking and energy management firm TimberRock. The idea is to leverage energy storage and variable demand to squeeze the maximum amount of renewable energy available on the grid for GM facilities.
In addition, GM expects to expand the carbon tracking feature to its electric vehicles. That will enable the company to prioritize its renewable energy purchasing activity for maximum impact on EV charging.
EV carbon tracking is a key new element in the climate action game, because Xcel is not alone. The US grid is still very much in a transitional period, with a heavy reliance on natural gas and coal for power generation. The very success of the EV revolution could bog down decarbonization goals in a sea of juiced-up demand for kilowatts as millions of EVs hit the road and plug into charging stations.
If all goes according to plan, the TimberRock partnership will help dampen the impact of EV sales on power plant emissions by enabling GM to target its power purchases strategically, in order to help ensure that EV battery charging takes maximum advantage of renewables on the grid.
GM’s work with TimberRock dates back to 2011, when the two companies paired to build a lone solar-powered EV charging station at General Motors’ Allison Transmission Plant in Maryland. The new carbon tracking partnership takes that relationship into next-level decarbonization territory.
GM Comes Out Swinging For Renewables
As for the timing of the announcement, it follows on the heels of a salvo that GM fired off on Tuesday, apparently aimed at Republican obstructionists in Congress and the two Democratic holdouts against President Biden’s climate action plans.
“General Motors applauds those who have worked tirelessly to advance the Build Back Better Plan, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, and urges Congress and the Administration to move forward legislation that will bring critical improvements to the country,” GM wrote.
GM also gently reminded legislators that the end goal of decarbonization is to fend off catastrophic climate change.
“General Motors believes we can help create a world that is safe and sustainable, where future generations can thrive,” the company wrote, while taking note of its plans to “achieve a clean and equitable transition to an all-electric future.”
“But we can’t do it alone,” GM warned, underscoring the need for strong federal action.
Placing itself firmly in the camp of President Biden, the company concluded that “General Motors looks forward to joining the President, Congress and the American people in celebrating enactment of legislation that creates a pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-sustainability future.”
Whelp, Here’s To Going It Alone
In another interesting bit of auto industry timing, earlier this week Ford also unleashed a massive, history making new EV manufacturing and workforce training announcement that supports the President’s plan for rapid decarbonization and new green jobs. The Ford announcement includes a vast new carbon neutral campus in Tennessee, powered partly with local renewable energy.
Together, the GM and Ford announcements put more pressure on legislators to act.
That could be too little, too late. Democrats in the House of Representatives have a sufficient majority to pass legislation, but the Senate is a different story.
The likelihood of getting enough Republican Senators on board to break a filibuster is unicorn-level small. Democrats could still manage to make some progress by exercising their slim 51-vote majority through the reconciliation process, except as of this writing they can only count on 49 votes.
For those of you not following the news, the two Democratic holdouts are West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
I know, right? Well, that’s the way the Senate works. If voters in other states vote out their Republican senators and replace them with Democratic senators who support Democratic presidents, the names Manchin and Sinema would quickly fade into the dustbin of history. As things stand, they appear destined to join the climate obstruction hall of fame right alongside the usual suspects.
Meanwhile, Ford and GM seem determined to follow through on their EV and renewable energy plans no matter what Congress does, though both companies are members of the corporate organization Business Roundtable, which is reportedly lobbying against the reconciliation bill.
Go figure! If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread — and stay tuned for word on Stellantis, the third member of the Big 3 legacy auto-making club.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Chevy Bolt EV by Tina Casey.