Inside Clean Energy: The New Hummer Is Big and Bad and Runs on Electricity

Observers call it a bold move. But the price tag is high, and environmentally friendly? Not so much.

Oct 22, 2020
The 2022 GMC Hummer EV is scheduled to go on sale in late 2021, with a price tag of $112,595 and a battery range of 350 miles. Credit: GM

The 2022 GMC Hummer EV is scheduled to go on sale in late 2021, with a price tag of $112,595 and a battery range of 350 miles. Credit: GM

Inside Clean Energy

The Hummer brand once stood out as a symbol of gross excess.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was a rabid fan of the vehicle, which looked like one of his movies in four-wheel form—and not one of the good movies, one that you were ashamed to admit you had seen three times.

The flagship H1 went on sale to the general public in 1992. It weighed about four tons and had fuel economy of about 10 mpg—so bad you could imagine the fumes causing birds to fall out of the sky.

Audacity was the point with Hummer, and that is still the case. This week, General Motors revealed the first vehicle in a revival of the brand, a truck that is big, powerful and, maybe most audacious, all-electric.

The new Hummer made its debut Wednesday with the release of a five-minute film, in which the environmental benefits of the EV are secondary to its raw power.

"Introducing the world's first all-electric supertruck, the revolutionary GMC Hummer EV, with no limits, no emissions and no equals," the film's narrator says over the propulsive beat of a  Led Zeppelin cover. "It will leave everything you thought possible in a cloud of dust."

Arnold Schwarzenegger looks at a Hummer H3 in 2006. Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Arnold Schwarzenegger looks at a Hummer H3 in 2006. Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

The vehicle is scheduled to go on sale in late 2021, with a price tag of $112,595 and a battery range of 350 miles. It is the first of what will be a line of Hummer EVs.

General Motors is positioning the Hummer as a challenger to Tesla's Cybertruck, which also is scheduled to go on sale in late 2021.

So far, Tesla has dominated the EV market, and the company's rivals are figuring out how to catch up, right as projections have that market soaring. For GM, a crucial part of the strategy is turning its existing strength in gasoline-powered trucks and SUVs into success in selling electric models in those categories.

Jon Krosnick, an expert in public opinion research who teaches at Stanford University, said it is remarkable that automakers are investing heavily in electric trucks, because there is little evidence that truck buyers are clamoring for electric options.

EVs, including all-electric and gas-electric hybrids, accounted for about 2 percent of new car and truck sales last year in the United States. 

"I see a kind of boldness on the part for the industry to say, 'We're not going to wait for consumers to demand this,'" he said. "'We're going to create the opportunities for them before the demand is there, because it's the right thing to do.'"

Krosnick said GM is sending a message with the Hummer that a truck "dripping with machismo" can also be electric.

Few buyers will be able to afford the new Hummer, but marketing it could be an important part of challenging the idea that EVs are small sedans driven mostly by people who live on the coasts.

Notice I'm not talking about the new Hummer as environmentally friendly. Gigantic vehicles, even electric ones, have substantial lifecycle emissions associated with the materials that go into them, and they contribute to the often-harmful perception that our cities need wide roads.

So, if you want to help the planet, don't drive at all, or drive a smaller EV like a Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model 3. And yes, I realize that the previous sentence completely misses the point of what GM is trying to do.

What's Stopping Car Buyers from Considering EVs?

Automakers have little choice but to shift their emphasis to EVs if they want to sell products in the European Union, China and other places where emissions rules are getting much more stringent.

But we don't yet know if U.S. car buyers will be on board for this transition.

The nonprofit Resources for the Future released a report this week with results of a survey on Americans' attitudes about EVs. Krosnick, the Stanford researcher I talked to about the Hummer, was a co-author of the report.

The survey shows that 40 percent of respondents would consider buying an EV; 30 percent would not consider buying an EV; and the rest are either not planning to buy a vehicle or don't know. At the same time, 65 percent of respondents have never driven an EV and don't know anyone else who has.

Some of the key findings are about what factors play a role in the decisions of people who would not consider buying an EV.

Reasons for EV Reluctance

The leading factor, the results show, is whether people think of global warming as a problem—if not, they are unlikely to consider an EV. The implication is that the market will grow as we see more tangible effects of climate change and as more people become concerned about those effects.

That's not much of a surprise. But the next most significant factor did surprise me: People who have concerns about the possibility of batteries catching on fire are unlikely to consider an EV. EV makers don't talk much about fire risk, so much of the information we have about fires comes from the government and news reports, and I don't have much of a sense of how the risk compares to that of driving a gasoline vehicle.

The third factor is maintenance costs, with some buyers concerned that EVs would cost more to maintain than gasoline-powered vehicles. This looks like an unwarranted concern, based on research from Consumer Reports and others that show that EVs cost less to maintain than gasoline vehicles.

A Tesla Model 3 is charged at a charging station. Credit: Horst Galuschka/picture alliance via Getty Images

A Tesla Model 3 is charged at a charging station. Credit: Horst Galuschka/picture alliance via Getty Images

I was expecting one of the factors to be concerns about having access to charging stations. But the survey shows that those concerns do not have much of an effect on whether someone is willing to consider an EV.

The telephone survey was based on a random sample of 502 American adults.

Krosnick told me that the safety concerns are difficult for automakers to address because just talking about things like battery fires will make people worry about them.

He noted a story this week in the Wall Street Journal about growing safety concerns and a new probe into fires in the Chevrolet Bolt, an all-electric hatchback.

But one of the larger issues is that most respondents have never driven an EV or known anyone who has. This isn't surprising considering, as I mentioned above, that the EV market share remains tiny.

"It's like a chicken and egg problem," Krosnick said about the small market share and how the lack of exposure to EVs makes people less likely to consider buying them.

General Electric Issues a Carbon Neutrality Plan, But Stops Short of the 'Hard Stuff'

General Electric makes jet engines and the turbines that run fossil fuel power plants, all major sources of carbon dioxide emissions.

Considering this product mix—which also includes renewable energy equipment like wind turbines—the company had an opportunity to make a bold move when it announced a plan last week to get to carbon neutrality by 2030.

But the pledge only includes emissions at GE factories and offices, which are a small fraction of the emissions that GE is responsible for through the use of its products.

I can spot a weak corporate emissions plan because I've seen so many stronger ones, including those of tech companies like Apple and Google, and industrial businesses like ArcelorMittal.

The General Electric logo is pictured in Belfort, France. Credit: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

The General Electric logo is pictured in Belfort, France. Credit: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

GE's plan has some goals for reducing emissions from the use of its products, like making jet engines and natural gas turbines that are more efficient, and exploring the possibility of generating electricity from burning hydrogen.

But the totality of the company's efforts are not nearly ambitious enough, said Han Chen, an energy policy program manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"I would just call it a very small step in the right direction," she said. "In my mind, it's kind of like telling everybody you're becoming a vegetarian by only not eating shrimp."

She said GE's plan is an example of how the public needs to avoid being swayed by commitments that sound good, and instead look closely at the specific steps a company is taking and how it will measure the results.

GE "is going to need to be pushed," she said. "It's not like they're going to proactively do the hard stuff."

Meanwhile, GE Chairman Larry Culp described the plan as a major step forward.

"GE, as it has through its history, is investing in the technologies that will shape the future," he said in an essay posted on LinkedIn. "Building a world that works is our purpose and addressing climate change is fundamental to fulfilling this purpose for our customers, employees and communities." 

Utility Responds to Solar Installers' Concern in Illinois, But Situation Remains Messy

I wrote last week about how the utility Ameren was reducing the credits it pays to new rooftop solar customers in Illinois, leading to an outcry from the solar industry.

Soon after that story was posted, there was a significant development: Ameren asked for permission to pause the rate cut from regulators figuring out how to settle a dispute about whether it was proper in the first place.

"As the net metering issue is under review, we want to reassure our new rooftop solar customers that they will receive the benefits allowed," said Richard J. Mark, chairman and president of Ameren Illinois, in a statement.

But the rate cut will remain in effect until regulators have a chance to rule on the latest request, which could be weeks.

This is part of a larger debate about net metering for rooftop solar in which customers receive credits for excess electricity they generate that flows back to the grid. Ameren had been paying the full retail rate for that electricity, but it said on Oct. 2 that it was now reducing the rate, which the company says is in line with the requirements of a 2017 law.

Utilities are often wary of paying the full retail price for rooftop solar. But the situation in Illinois is unusually complicated, with several pending cases before regulators and wildly divergent views of what's really happening.

I spoke with some Ameren officials this week to answer some of my nagging questions, such as how the reduced credits compare to the full retail price that the company previously paid to rooftop solar customers. The answer is that the credits would be roughly half of the full price for most customers. This applies to excess electricity that goes back to the grid, which is often a small share of the financial benefits of rooftop solar.

Solar installers remain frustrated because they don't know what the policy will be in the long term, which they say is making it difficult to sell new systems.

I'll keep following this and let you know what happens.

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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