Inside Clean Energy: General Motors Wants to Go Big on EVs

The auto giant’s Bolt and Volt models never sold well, but now the company is touting a battery that has more range than Tesla’s.

Mar 12, 2020
General Motors reveals its modular platform and battery system, Ultium, on March 4, 2020 at the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan. Credit: Steve Fecht for General Motors

General Motors reveals its modular platform and battery system, Ultium, on March 4, 2020 at the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan. Credit: Steve Fecht for General Motors

Inside Clean Energy

General Motors had a splashy event last week to announce a rededication to electric vehicles.

A lot was said, but what got my attention was one number: $100 per kilowatt-hour.

That's the battery cost at which the price of an EV will be at about parity with the cost of a gasoline vehicle, according to analysts. And that's the number GM said it soon will meet and then beat with a new Ultium battery system it is developing through a partnership with LG Chem.

 

Another important number: GM said its new battery system will be capable of going up to 400 miles on a single charge, which is slightly more than the current industry leader Tesla's range of about 390 miles.

We've been here before, when GM talked about taking a leadership role in EVs and then the results fell short. Highly touted models such as the Volt and Bolt got rave reviews from critics but were not successful in terms of sales. At the same time, Tesla showed how an EV-focused automaker could deliver sales in a big way, and left GM and everyone else fighting for a distant second place in the U.S. market.

But this round feels different, with GM going into a level of detail that suggests the company wants to be an EV player and has a plan to do it.

"It's clear they're serious," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "They've committed seriously to a future where electric vehicles play a much larger role in the total consumer market, and I think they feel like that's a position they need to be in."

He also sees this as a sign that automakers realize that they need an EV strategy, especially if they want to compete in markets such as China and Europe, where governments have rules and subsidies that encourage EV purchases.

He added that one of the main takeaways from the GM event was that company executives said their next generation of EVs would be profitable. This would be a departure from previous models that were expensive to develop and sold for little or no profit, partly because too few were being sold to achieve economies of scale.

GM President Mark Reuss described this as a "reinvention of the company" and said employees "are on the cusp of delivering a profitable EV business that can satisfy millions of customers."

An executive for a major automaker doesn't throw out the number "millions" at a news conference unless he means it. The company sold 2.9 million vehicles in the U.S. last year, while it's top selling EV, the Bolt, sold 16,418 units. The idea of selling more than a million EVs would be a monumental leap.

So will people buy the cars? We'll begin to have an answer late this year when the company releases the next-generation Bolt. And then many other EVs will follow, across GM's brands.

If GM has a selection of affordable, desirable electric vehicles, it could lead the way toward EVs entering the mainstream. I'm excited to see what happens.

It's important to note, however, that low gasoline prices—which we're seeing right now and for the immediate future—are bad for sales of EVs and highly efficient vehicles, based on sales data from previous stretches of low gasoline prices. We'll see what the prices are when the new Bolt arrives.

An Indiana Bill to Slow Coal-Plant Shutdowns 

On Tuesday, the Indiana General Assembly passed a controversial bill requiring that utilities get permission from the state before closing a coal-fired power plant. The bill now heads to the governor, who is likely to sign it.

The bill says that a utility that wants to close a coal plant needs to give notice and seek approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which would then conduct a review to see if the plant closing is in the public interest. Critics of the bill say the bill would make utilities reluctant to propose closing coal plants, and raise the possibility that proposals would be rejected even if they made sense financially.

Nipsco Power Station in Michigan City, Indiana. Credit: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Michigan City Generating Station in Indiana, owned by the utility NIPSCO, is a coal-fired power plant that is set to close. Credit: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The new rules would only last until May 1, 2021. Sponsors set this timeframe to allow a special state commission to issue a report about the future of Indiana's electricity generation. The report, likely to come out this fall, may be used as the basis for other legislation that would extend limits on coal-plant closings.

Reporter Sarah Bowman of the Indianapolis Star has covered the whole process and wrote this week about the final hours of the debate process, as a joint House-Senate committee rammed through a final version of the bill.

The larger issue is that coal plants are rapidly closing and the ones that remain are being used less, which is bad news for the coal industry. The industry has been a prolific campaign donor in Indiana, a state that burns more coal for electricity than anywhere other than Texas.

Environmental groups fought hard against the bill, and they were joined by utilities and business and community groups.

"Every constituency in Indiana appears to be against this bill except for the coal companies," said Ben Inskeep, the Indiana-based senior analyst for EQ Research, a clean energy consulting firm, when I interviewed him in January for this story. "It's a rare bill that seems to unite environmentalists, consumer advocates, utilities, the NAACP and the Chamber of Commerce."

Hard Times for Oil Don't Mean Good Times for Renewables 

Coronavirus has upended the energy economy, and that includes wind, solar and other renewables.

The pressure is a result of the giant drop in oil demand, which is pulverizing the finances of energy companies, which then harms the broader economy. The major oil companies all have at least some investments in clean energy, and they are part of a larger financial system that provides the money needed to build large solar, wind and battery storage projects.

One concern is that renewable energy projects—or any projects—may have a more difficult time getting the loans they need to do business.

Credit: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

Coronavirus has led to a decreased demand for oil. Credit: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

So far, those financing issues have yet to materialize, said Ethan Zindler, an analyst with BloombergNEF.

Some of the financial tremors we're seeing "are just reflections of what happens when the world decides to come to a stop for a period of time," Zindler said. However, if that period of time stretches into months, then the financial consequences will get more serious.

Others are more concerned about the potential harm to renewable energy, both from a financial and political perspective. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told the Financial Times that coronavirus "will definitely put downward pressure on the appetite for a cleaner energy transition."

The shocks taking place in the oil market are a result of more than just coronavirus. Russia and Saudi Arabia have been unable to agree on how to handle the drop in oil demand, and the result is that the market is awash in cheap oil at a time when demand is falling.

The Trump administration is considering a package of low-interest loans to help shale oil and gas companies that are being hammered by the falling commodity prices, something first reported on Tuesday by the Washington Post.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Wednesday that the administration is considering proposing loan guarantees for affected businesses and industries. He named airlines, hotels and cruise lines as examples, but not oil companies.

"I want to be clear, this is not bailouts, we are not looking for bailouts," he said, testifying before a House subcommittee.

The administration may face opposition within its own party to the idea of giving aid to oil companies.

"When you look at particular industries, whether it be Boeing, whether it be the oil companies, that's a slippery slope," said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, interviewed in Fox Business. "Most of us on Main Street don't ever get that kind of attention."

Inside Clean Energy is ICN's weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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