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Tina Casey headshot

100 Percent Renewable Energy Goal Could Spell Trouble for GM CEO Mary Barra

General Motors is now targeting 100 percent renewable energy for its U.S. operations by 2025. Meanwhile CEO Mary Barra was tapped for a two-year term as chair of the Business Roundtable, which is fighting progressive climate action in the U.S. Congress.
By Tina Casey
GM CEO Mary Barra

General Motors grabbed the media spotlight last week with the unveiling of an impressive 100 percent renewable energy plan in support of President Joe Biden’s climate action goals. The company has also allied itself with the president’s efforts to grow new green jobs. However, the path ahead is far from clear. On Sept. 29, GM’s CEO and chairman, Mary Barra, was tapped for a two-year term as chair of the Business Roundtable, a conservative-leaning organization at odds with Biden’s vision of passing transformative progressive legislation during his tenure.

Renewable energy for all: GM leverages buying power to move markets

Long before GM embarked on its 100 percent renewable energy journey, the company became notorious among environmentalist circles for two high-profile marketing choices it made in the late 1990s: the ill-fated EV1 electric car and the gas-guzzling Hummer. More recently, GM faced criticism in 2019 for supporting the Donald Trump administration against California in a legal battle over vehicle emissions.

Nevertheless, the over-arching thread of GM’s 21st-century story is the shift into a more sustainable future for U.S. auto manufacturing.

Despite withering criticism from conservative pundits and their allies, GM returned to the electric vehicle market in 2010 with the launch of the Chevy Volt. GM also marked out leadership territory in the areas of renewable energy acquisition, EV charging, energy efficiency and waste reduction, as well as community engagement.

Mary Barra was named CEO in 2014 and elected chairman of the board in 2016. Since then, GM has ramped up its electric vehicle ambitions in tandem with its renewable energy activities. In particular, GM has leveraged its buying power to help accelerate the shift to clean power across entire energy markets, including those in its global footprint as well as here in the U.S.

Among other recent activities, in 2016 GM joined the global RE100 campaign with a commitment to shift to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. In 2018, the company became a founding member of a powerful U.S organization called the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), and earlier this year it signed on to the global Science-Based Targets initiative.

Industrial renewable energy buyers flex their muscles

The REBA roster now includes more than 200 leading corporate energy buyers in the U.S. Not surprisingly, tech and communications firms like Facebook, Google and AT&T dominated the list of top renewable energy purchasers last year. However, manufacturers like GM are also beginning to add their weight to the energy transition.

“REBA members accounted for 97 percent of the renewable energy deals announced in 2020, and as the strategies used to transact in the energy market have evolved, so too has the profile of a typical large energy buyer,” REBA explained in a 2020 overview of its energy ranking.

“While the information technology (IT) sector continues to represent the highest announced renewable energy procurement by volume, industrials and materials was the top sector for new buyers, which indicates the importance of decarbonization of industrial supply chains to meet zero-carbon goals,” REBA added.

GM has played a leading role in that trend, as demonstrated in 2019 when it became the only automaker to be recognized with a leadership award by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership program.

The energy storage secret weapon

Last year REBA unveiled a proposal that would restructure wholesale energy markets to provide energy consumers with more power over their energy supply. The change would benefit industrial users like GM and companies in their supply chains, among other renewable energy stakeholders.

One key to the proposed restructuring involves enabling corporate entities to generate and store their own renewable energy, and that’s where GM’s ambitious new 100 percent renewable energy announcement comes into play.

Last week's announcement caught the media eye mainly because it set a seemingly impossible target of 100 percent renewable energy for the company’s U.S. operations by 2025. That outstrips GM’s own initial RE100 goal for electricity by a good 25 years, and it also beats the Biden goal of 100 percent clean power for electricity by 10 years.

That is certainly impressive, but the focus on numbers has left the crucial energy storage element in the shadows.

GM’s clean power announcement focuses initial attention on sourcing more renewable energy. However, procurement is just part of its four-point plan. GM also emphasizes ramping up energy efficiency. The other two parts of the plan involve energy storage, one from a technology perspective and the other from a public policy angle.

On the technology side, GM notes that it has joined the new Breakthrough Energy Catalyst program as a founding member. Along with Microsoft and other familiar names in tech, another founder is the top the global steelmaker Arcelor Mittal. By joining the program, GM and Arcelor have signaled a new level of energy collaboration between steelmakers and automakers.

As an initiative of the powerful Breakthrough Energy investor group, Breakthrough Energy Catalyst is all but certain to have a significant impact on GM’s renewable energy goals. That includes energy storage, as reflected in the third element of GM’s 100 percent renewable energy goal, in which the company explains it is “creating technology to store renewable energy over the medium and long term, so its power consumption is not disrupted by external fluctuations.”

Those four little words — “medium and long term” — should pop out to anyone familiar with energy storage for grid use, buildings and industrial facilities.

Today’s generation of lithium-ion batteries can provide electricity for a few hours, and that is sufficient for many circumstances. However, GM and others, including the U.S. Department of Energy, are also working toward a future in which renewable energy can be stored for a bare minimum of at least 10 hours of use, with days, weeks or even months of use as additional goals. That means bringing new technologies to market including flow batteries, gravity-based systems and green hydrogen.

Energy storage, microgrids and the need for transformative policy

The advent of long-duration energy storage opens up new avenues for industrial users like GM to develop microgrids that can power their facilities exclusively on renewable energy without sacrificing reliability.

A close web of existing regulatory obstacles stands in the way of such a plan, along with objections from utility companies and other stakeholders. That explains the fourth part of GM’s plan, in which the company advocates for the overhaul of longstanding regulatory obstacles. That position supports REBA’s proposals for overhauling wholesale electricity markets.

“Policy efforts are essential to expand transmission, create microgrids that help deploy renewable energy, and enable markets to price these solutions to enable a carbon-free resilient power system,” GM explains, adding that it “supports policies that enable a carbon-free, resilient power system.”

GM CEO Mary Barra at White House discussing EVs and renewable energy
GM CEO Mary Barra (front row, third from left) visits the White House on August 5 to discuss vehicle electrification with administration officials. 

Speed bumps on the road to decarbonization

The GM announcement portrays a stepped-up level of activity that reflects the urgency of the climate crisis. That stands in contrast to the position of the Business Roundtable.

For example, last spring the Business Roundtable came out in support of the proposed Energy Infrastructure Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill or BIF, championed by President Biden. The organization’s support was conditional, though, on emphasizing carbon capture and other fossil-friendly measures in the bill.

In addition, the Business Roundtable has been lobbying furiously against the “Build Back Better” reconciliation bill supported by the president, and the effort appears to be working. Democrats in the Senate could vote Build Back Better into law without having to seek bipartisan support, but that can be done only if the entire Democratic caucus of 50 Senators votes in favor, with the tie-breaking 51st vote cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Build Back Better includes climate action policies and social, educational and economic equity provisions that would be funded by a significant restructuring of federal tax policy, with impacts focused on corporations and wealthy individuals. Not surprisingly, that bill is vigorously opposed by the Business Roundtable and a laundry list of other conservative organizations.

Political reporters have begun drawing attention to the influence of the lobbying effort on two Democratic U.S. senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Last week, the two seemed on the verge of leveraging their votes to de-couple the infrastructure bill from the reconciliation bill. Apparently Manchin, Sinema and their allies were betting that progressive supporters of the Build Back Better bill would make significant concessions to court their votes. The end game would be to allow a vote on the infrastructure bill to move forward alone, while stripping the progressive provisions from the Build Back Better Bill.

However, Bernie Sanders and other high-profile progressive senators are not the only ones supporting Build Back Better as written. Manchin and Sinema are the only two holdouts. The other 48 Democratic senators support the progressive elements in Build Back Better, and so does President Biden himself. In addition, public opinion polls consistently show strong support.

In the latest development, the president has made it clear that he is willing to trim the dollar amount of Build Back Better down without enabling its history-making potential to be washed away in a sea of concessions. As reported by Reuters, Democratic senators met with Biden on Friday and agreed to continuing negotiating over the bill.

"It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days or in six weeks. We're going to get it done," Biden said.

With the Business Roundtable and others still lobbying furiously against such an outcome, it will be interesting to see when and if Mary Barra takes her next trip to the White House.

After all, if GM really wants president-level support for those policy efforts that enable a “carbon-free resilient power system,” it may have to give something in return.

Images courtesy of GM

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey