What’s Behind Chevrolet’s $40 Million Clean Energy Initiative?

On the same day as their initial public stock offering, Chevrolet made a major announcement that in essence proclaimed “we want to be your green car company.” Following on the heels of the warm reception given to their 42 mpg Cruze Eco, and the long awaited Volt which was recently named Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine’s Car of the Year, as well as winning Green Car of the Year honors at the LA Auto Show, the company announced a new Clean Energy Initiative aimed at communities, hoping to build on the momentum that the company seems to be gaining.

“We want to turn our buyers into (green) evangelists,” said Joel Ewanick, GM’s vice president for U.S. Marketing. They are projecting 1.9 million buyers for the 2011 model year.

Exactly how they intend to do that is a little unclear. Specifically they said they have allocated $40 million dollars for community-based green projects, which could be applied to such things as energy-efficiency technology, renewable energy projects such as wind farms or solar installations, tree planting, school weatherization and so on. They have set a target of 8 million metric tons of carbon saved. That turns out to be the same number that the NHTSHA claims will be saved by all US vehicles sold in 2011, due to the increase in the CAFÉ standard to 27.3 mpg.According to the press release, “GM estimates its new carbon-reduction goal equates to the emissions in 2011 from driving the 1.9 million vehicles Chevrolet is expected to sell in the United States over the next year.”

So their goal essentially aims to neutralize the impact of those new cars entering the marketplace, through the efforts of communities over a one year period. Based on the assumptions provided on their website (15k miles driven per year), Chevy is apparently expecting an average fuel economy of  30.7 mpg, some 12.7% higher than the CAFÉ requirement.

One thing was clear, today’s announcement was far more concerned with trumpeting their good intentions than with worrying over the details of who, what, where, when and how much. How, for example, did they determine that $40 million would yield 8 million metric tons of CO2 (a cost of about $4.55 per ton)?

GM really wants us to feel good about them transforming themselves into America’s Green Car Company. And to their credit, they have made great strides.

The Volt is really a big deal and it deserves a sizable portion of the acclaim it’s been getting. The executives on hand today were quick to point out that the company has reduced their internal carbon footprint by 60% since 1990 and their water consumption by 35% since 2002. Never mind that a good portion of these reductions come from reduced production numbers. These are still laudable achievements.

Also to their credit, they understood how much they didn’t know about going green in other sectors and reached out to a number of credible groups including: Clean Air-Cool Planet, Climate Action Reserve, The Climate Group, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the Center for Environmental Policy, Bard College to help them administer the program. While, again, the details of how these groups will work with GM were scarce, Eban Goodstein, Director of the Center at Bard, made it clear in his remarks that the final decision on how the funds will be spent will be made by the company.

Not surprisingly, all of the participants had good things to say about the initiative. “This is a big deal, said Susan Anderson, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Director for the City of Portland, “as significant as cutting annual carbon emissions to zero for all the businesses and households in Portland, Oregon – an entire city. Cities are working diligently to reduce carbon emissions, and this is the sort of leadership initiative that brings private and public efforts into alignment.”

Communities will be invited to submit proposals through a process which will be spelled out later on the new Chevy carbon reduction website.

So what to make of all this? After missing the boat on energy efficiency for years, stumbling badly and then falling into bankruptcy, GM has come back with a couple of impressive cars, half-staggering, half-swaggering into the ring. I couldn’t help feeling slightly embarrassed by the shameless transparency of this blatant effort to reinvent themselves before our very eyes (and with our tax dollars), but at the same time, I have to wish them well, because these are exactly the kinds of things that need to happen, if the American economy and the inhabitants of Planet Earth are going to survive.

RP Siegel, PE, is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.

Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel about sustainability. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com