Driving a zero-emissions future: GM’s holistic approach to meeting long-term energy goals

General Motors
Rob Threlkeld is global manager of sustainable energy, supply and reliability with General Motors.

This article is sponsored by CMS Enterprises.

Rob Threlkeld is global manager of sustainable energy, supply and reliability with General Motors. His team supports global renewable energy strategies, including integrating renewable energy supplies to all General Motors facilities in the future and supporting efforts to transition the grid to zero emissions.

General Motors is a customer of CMS Enterprises, a wholly owned subsidiary of CMS Energy Corporation. Founded in 1987, CMS Enterprises owns and operates independent power plants —including wind, solar, natural gas and biomass assets — and an in-house energy marketing group. The company is focused on late-stage or fully developed utility-scale wind and solar projects it can develop, own and operate for large customers.

CMS Enterprises recently interviewed Threlkeld about GM’s evolving renewable energy strategy.

Brian Barthelmes: Define GM’s zero/zero/zero strategy.

Rob Threlkeld: Our vision for the future is zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. On the zero emissions front, we’re aligning with the utility sector around four key pillars:

  1. Energy efficiency and demand response to more efficiently use, or reduce our use of, energy;
  2. Sourcing renewables;
  3. Energy storage, in part to solve renewable energy intermittency challenges; and
  4. Accelerating the renewable energy transformation via good public policy. 

Barthelmes: How have GM’s wind investments evolved?

Threlkeld: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we began developing landfill gas projects and signed onto long-term landfill gas supply agreements to help power our facilities. Fast-forwarding to 2011, GM was among the first corporations to set a target for sourcing or promoting the use of renewables. In our case, our 2011 target was 125 megawatts of renewable energy sourced or promoted by 2020. About five years ago, as the cost of utility-scale wind energy began to decline, we realized we needed to go off site to meet our 2020 target. We sited two projects close to our facilities — one in the rural community of Haviland, Ohio, owned and operated by CMS Enterprises, and a second in rural Illinois. Both projects have added value to communities beyond the presence of our manufacturing facilities. That’s a win for everyone.

CMS Enterprises
CMS Enterprises owns and operates the 105-megawatt (MWAC) Northwest Ohio Wind project in Ohio’s Paulding County. The project offsets emissions from 7 Midwest General Motors plants.

Barthelmes: Talk about the value of utility-scale renewable energy for GM and the automotive industry generally.

Threlkeld: We could cover the rooftops of assembly plants with solar panels but doing so won’t fulfill all our energy needs. Offsite utility-scale projects help us achieve economies of scale, which lowers our cost. For context, an average automotive assembly plant might use about 2,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per day, while a typical home uses about 10,000 MWh per year. Sourcing renewables makes costs competitive for the entire industry, enables customers to use renewables no matter what the weather and fuels our zero-zero-zero strategy.

Barthelmes: You’ve talked about structuring renewables investments as a portfolio. What does that look like?

Threlkeld: A portfolio strategy blends onsite and offsite investments in renewables and supporting technologies. Onsite investments can help build excitement among employees about the speed of the automotive industry’s energy transition. We’re looking to offsite utility-scale wind and solar energy for procurement. For GM, measures like creative long-term power purchase agreements and utility solutions, like green tariffs in our Michigan facilities in Flint and Bay City, combine to help us manage risks and create opportunities for our company and customers.

Barthelmes: What do you look for in a utility-scale renewables provider?

Threlkeld: We need a provider that takes the long view. It’s about making investments now that best set us up for future success. Providers that view the grid holistically — specifically how we leverage technologies like battery storage, fuel cells and more to offset intermittency challenges with renewables —add real value. Finally, we need a partner that can deliver an end-to-end turnkey project — from permits and interconnection agreements to working closely with local communities to build and launch a successful project — to benefit us and the communities we call home.

Barthelmes: Rural communities are home to GM’s wind facilities. How should developers engage with them?

Threlkeld: Developers can help ensure communities are on board with their projects and can extract maximum value from their developments using tax revenue — from road improvements to schools and more. Beyond dollars and cents, we’re also able to achieve our STEM goals. For example, we’re grooming GM’s next-generation workforce by talking to schoolchildren about our developments. The students connect the ability to run their electronic devices with the renewable energy our facilities generate.