(Image: At least 20 new models will join the Chevrolet Bolt in GM's electric vehicle portfolio by 2030, the company claims.)
The COP25 climate talks in Madrid proved a major disappointment to those hoping that governments would agree on an aggressive course of urgent action. Nevertheless, some bright spots emerged outside of the official sessions. One of those came from General Motors, which announced a major new electric vehicle battery partnership last Thursday.
The GM battery announcement was welcome news from a climate action perspective, considering that the company seemed to be driving in exactly the opposite direction earlier this fall.
In October, GM joined Toyota, Hyundai and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in support of the Donald Trump administration’s effort to challenge California’s strict zero-emission tailpipe regulations in court. The stance earned GM a big thumbs-down from environmental advocates.
GM’s position on zero-emission vehicles is not so cut and dried, though. In a statement timed to the legal action, GM claimed it still supports a vigorous, national zero-emission standard to replace the patchwork of state regulations.
With a national plan in place, GM predicts at least 7 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030. That figure only includes long-range electric vehicles, not gas-electric hybrids with limited range.
As for whether that is meaningful talk or just talk, the company’s track record on clean power does indicate serious intent.
GM is a founding member of REBA (the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance), aimed at helping businesses add 60 gigawatts of clean power by 2025. GM has committed to an RE100 goal of sourcing 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, and it partnered with the public utility Consumers Energy to implement the first “green tariff” in its home state of Michigan.
With the help of three virtual power purchase agreements in 2018, GM also has 416 megawatts of renewable energy in its fold, far exceeding its initial goal of 125 megawatts.
The company also gets high marks for energy efficiency and waste management among advocates. Among several recent honors for its green power efforts, last September GM won a Green Power Leadership award for direct engagement on renewable energy projects from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
With all of this in mind, GM’s recent battery announcement comes into sharper focus.
The company says it will enter into a $2.3 billion joint venture with the leading energy storage firm LG Chem to build a massive new electric vehicle battery plant in northeastern Ohio.
The partners aim to drive down the cost of an electric vehicle battery by achieving economies of scale all along the value chain, in addition to deploying the latest high-efficiency manufacturing processes.
That laser sharp focus on cost is significant, because the high cost of today’s battery technology is the defining factor in the price of electric vehicles compared to conventional cars.
Battery costs are falling rapidly, and projects like the new GM-LG partnership will help bring the cost of an electric vehicle down to parity with conventional cars.
Another significant part of the partnership is the accommodation of emerging technology. Battery technology is improving and transforming, and the plant aims to assimilate new designs as they come through the pipeline.
To keep the innovation flowing, the partnership includes an agreement to work collaboratively on new approaches that continue to drive down the cost of electric vehicle batteries.
In addition to reducing the cost of batteries, improvements in range and lifecycle will also help to make electric vehicles more appealing to the next generation of car buyers.
In another interesting move, GM appears to be putting some friendly pressure on car buyers to consider electric vehicles over gas or diesel by introducing electric alternatives alongside new releases from its conventional models.
For example, GM is investing heavily in conventional pick-up trucks, but it also says it will introduce electric versions in 2021.
Last week, Reuters cited Cadillac president Steve Carlisle, who confirmed that Cadillac—a GM brand—is still planning to introduce a “large electric SUV similar to the Escalade.” However, Carlisle also said that Cadillac may continue to offer conventional models “depending on consumer demand.”
Presenting car buyers with a choice is pretty weak tea compared to an aggressive national zero-emission standard that would set benchmarks for manufacturers and provide incentives (and disincentives) for car buyers.
Nevertheless, without strong public policy, it’s up to car buyers to drive the national market for electric vehicles. The technology is in hand, and the nation’s charging station network is strong and growing.
In the coming years, businesses looking to replace fleet vehicles of all types—economy, luxury and light-duty trucks—can also put their climate action money to work by choosing electric.
Image credit: General Motors
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.