Why (and how) GM is making friends with utilities

Jeffrey Sauger (General Motors)
Chevrolet Bolt EV autonomous test vehicles are assembled at General Motors Orion Assembly in Orion Township, Michigan. 

When it comes to the future of cleaner transportation, it isn't just automotive companies that are in the driver's seat. And when it comes specifically to accelerating electric vehicle adoption, General Motors believes electric utilities are among its most important allies.

The motivation is pretty straightforward. Until more EV charging infrastructure is in place — a process that will take the better part of a decade to play out — it will be difficult for GM to sell EVs into corporate and civic fleets to ridesharing organizations that are attempting to disrupt the concept of vehicle ownership.

That's why GM is actively developing relationships with utilities, not just to encourage EV charging infrastructure deployments but also to advocate for more clean-power generating resources such as wind and solar.

"Everyone must believe in the scaled-up vision of where this is all headed," said Britta Gross, director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy for GM, during a discussion at GreenBiz 18 last week.

GM's latest vision statement, declared by CEO Mary Barra in October, is a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion. It faces a long journey to reach that goal. Yes, it has made an $11 billion commitment to EV research and development between now and 2022. But compared with non-domestic automakers, the largest U.S. automaker has been relatively slow to address the emissions profile of its existing vehicle portfolio.

Utilities will help GM and other automakers navigate the transition. Not only do they have expertise in installing and maintain electric infrastructure, they've got the sort of ongoing customer relationships that car companies crave. Plus, the not-so-dirty truth is that most EV owners wince at the notion that they're keeping them charged with dirty power.

GM's roadmap for developing these relationships includes two highly public initiatives: its Maven ridesharing service, served by Bolt EVs, and its quest to power all of its own operations entirely with renewable energy by 2050. (Its current power purchase agreements currently bring it to about 20 percent.)

"In the end what we want is to have cleaner cars, on a cleaner grid," said Lauren Smith, project management renewable energy and sustainability metrics for GM, who spoke alongside Gross on the GreenBiz 18 panel.

For perspective, the company sources up to 7.4 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. It has so far signed five massive power purchase agreements (one in Mexico, four in the United States); its next focus is on China, which isn't surprising, given that country's relatively bold ambitions for EV adoption.

A third GM manager, Kelly Helfrich, in charge of Maven EVs and related charging infrastructure, said GM's data about how Maven owners charge their Bolts demonstrates that while individual consumers are more likely to "fuel up" their batteries at home, fleet owners will rely heavily on public options, especially fast-charging technologies. Many Maven drivers use this option at least two times daily.

"The business case pencils out rather quickly," Helfrich said. 

One technology that GM is planning to provide utilities in the very near future builds on the company's OnStar offering, a service used for a variety safety, navigation and maintenance applications. The idea is to help utilities build their own systems for offering vehicle-to-grid services.

One example might be an app for choosing the most cost-effective times for homeowners to recharge their vehicle batteries or to allow them to use their car batteries for helping offset peak demand charges.

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