GM’s Expansion, Energy Goals Hinge on Renewables’ Power Lines

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Bobby Magill

General Motors is calling for greater access to wind and solar power through expanded transmission lines to feed growing demand for clean electricity by its future factories and customers.

Access to renewables is a factor in the company’s decisions about where to expand or build new facilities, Rob Threlkeld, GM’s global manager of renewable energy, told Bloomberg Environment.

Electric power lines delivering wind and solar power are not a constraint on growth today, but, between 2018 and 2050, new transmission connecting wind and solar farms to both GM factories and its customers—particularly those driving electric vehicles—will be critical for the company’s success, he said.

GM is one of the RE100 group of companies that have committed to obtaining 100 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, and other renewables. GM plans to go fully renewable by 2050 and expects 20 percent of its global electric power demand to be met with renewable energy by the end of 2018.

Transmission Critical to Growth

“Electricity that is both cost-effective and clean is one of the determining factors that go into any new investment/expansion,” Threlkeld said. “As we go from 2018 to 2050, obtaining lowest-cost renewable energy generation will be key to meet the RE100 2050 goal.”

“For us to continue to find projects that fit our needs, which is providing low-cost price-stable wind and solar, we need to be able to interconnect those assets to a grid,” he said.

Electric vehicles, which GM and other automakers consider crucial to their future, are expected to increase the overall U.S. electricity demand considerably in the coming decades, requiring new transmission lines to provide consumers with the power needed to run them, said Aaron Bloom, the group manager of the Grid Systems Analysis Group in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles sit covered in front of Chevrolet Sonic vehicles outside the General Motors Co. Orion Assembly Plant in Orion Township, Mich., on June 13, 2017.
Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

Available renewable power transmission and transmission planning might not meet major corporations’ long-term demand for renewables, according to a report published Jan. 16 by the Wind Energy Foundation and David Gardiner and Associates, a firm that advises companies on climate and clean energy issues.

Most wind power is produced in the central U.S., but most of the demand for that power is in other regions of the country. As more wind power is developed, more power lines are needed to deliver that energy to consumers in major cities outside the region.

“There is a big risk of missing out on the opportunity to meet the corporate demand,” John Kostyack, executive director of the Wind Energy Foundation, told Bloomberg Environment. “All the affordable, cheap wind and solar they’ve been buying ultimately will become inaccessible due to failure to build the necessary transmission.”

Corporate Wind, Solar Demand Growing

Corporate demand for renewable power is growing. Companies that are part of REBA, the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, which includes GM, Walmart, and more than 100 other companies, plan to buy more than 60 gigawatts of renewable power by 2025. Only 9 gigawatts have been procured so far, according to the report.

The report estimates that if 90 percent of renewables transmission projects currently in development are built, they would meet 70 percent of the expected demand from REBA companies by 2025.

Some GM facilities are located close to high wind power production areas in Texas and Kansas, Threlkeld said, but additional transmission lines are needed to make buying renewable power for GM’s operations and customers elsewhere less costly in the long run.

Walmart, which is a RE100 and REBA member with a goal to obtain all its power from renewables, currently generates about half of the renewable energy it uses from solar panels and wind turbines built at its stores and other facilities. New transmission will be needed for the company to buy more renewable power.

“It’s certainly important in the sense that we recognize for us to meet our targets, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to install [enough] renewable energy at the store,” Mark Vanderhelm, Walmart’s vice president for energy, told Bloomberg Environment.

Regional Planning a Challenge

Both GM and the Wind Energy Foundation are calling for regional transmission organizations and the federal government to include corporate demand for renewables in their long-term transmission development planning process.

Lanny Nickell, vice president of engineering for the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization, or RTO, covering the Texas panhandle and the western Great Plains, said it is challenging to work with other RTOs to build the power lines necessary to deliver wind power to other parts of the country.

“It requires more than one regional operator and more than one transmission owner to agree on how to allocate the cost of that investment,” Nickell told Bloomberg Environment.

Try Environment & Energy Report