GM revs up promise to run off 100% renewable energy

During this year’s annual Climate Week held in New York City, the Climate Group welcomed new companies into their RE100 and EP100 programs including the car giant General Motors. But for such a massive company, committing to running off 100% renewable energy will be no easy task. Molly Lempriere reports.


Renewable Energy

Good for the environment and good for business

Launched just two years ago, RE100 is an initiative by the Climate Group in partnership with CDP, as part of the We Mean Business coalition designed to encourage and support influential businesses to cut carbon emissions by becoming 100% reliant on renewable energy sources. They estimate that should all companies make the move to wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy, it would cut the global CO2 emissions by between 40-50%, a vast change sure to make a massive environment difference.

Currently 69 different global companies having already pledged to become 100% renewable. Of these General Motors is one of the most recent, following the likes of Google and Unilever to promise that their operations in 59 different countries will be reliant solely on 100% renewable energy by 2050.

"69 global companies have pledged to become 100% renewable."

Global Manager of Renewable Energy at GM Rob Threlkeld is keen to highlight not just the vast environmental benefits of such a move but also the clear business benefits. "The financial benefits in providing stable pricing are very important component of our RE100 plan" Threlkeld explains, highlighting the greater stability in the price of renewables versus traditional fuels and the importance of that stability to GMs stakeholders and stockholders.

This is not the first of GMs moves towards a more environmental approach however, and it’s clear that they have learnt a lot from previous experiences. "We’ve had a long history of renewable energy" Threlkeld stated, "starting with gas in the mid 90s and then getting into solar in 2005 with some of our onsite power purchase agreements. We’ve been able to save money with each of our projects and with the cost continually going down". This approach has meant that by 2016, GM were already saving $5m a year in energy costs.

Conquering the last 5%

In 2015 GM needed 9 terawatt hours of electricity in order to run their factories, shops and offices worldwide. To provide this more sustainably previous goals included creating 125 megawatts of energy by 2020, which would have attributed to 10% of their energy load.

GM has decided to be more ambitious with their goals however, hence their work with the Climate Group this September. Threkeld explains that being "one of the first corporations to set a renewable energy target really allowed us to take a look at the industry as a whole, look at the skill and capabilities and be able to come up with what we think is a very sound strategy for taking the company to 100% renewable energy."

The sheer scale of the project is new for them however, bringing renewable energy to 350 different facilities worldwide, something Threlkeld is very aware of. "It definitely becomes more challenging as you go out of the countries that have a significant renewable presence", a challenge that has been factored into their timescale.

GM undoubtedly have many aids as well as challenges going into this initiative, from experience to established infrastructure. But whilst they are optimistic Threlkeld admits "I think you can get 95% of the way, but how do you get over that last 5% hurdle? That may be a significant challenge in some of the countries or areas we’ve got operations in. But hopefully through policy and regulatory framework we can achieve that."

A scheme founded on collaboration

One of the greatest benefits of the RE100 scheme for businesses is the collaborative aspect, promoting peer-to-peer guidance amongst the community of international companies. GM has a lot to bring this collaboration, with past experience and current work on renewables including 22 facilities with solar arrays, three sites using landfill gas and four are in the process of having wind power.

"‘I think you can get 95% of the way, but how do you get over that last 5% hurdle?"

Collaboration on environmental matters is something GM has been working on for years as one of the founding members of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance and Business Renewables Center. They’ve worked alongside their suppliers to make sure the renewable energy is a possibility for companies of all sizes, with the aim to "scale renewable resource consumption up and streamline the process so that it can work for everyone" Threlkeld says.

Furthermore, coming from a vehicle background they have years of work developing battery technology. Threlkeld believes this is one of their greatest strengths, "The automotive industry is driving change from the battery storage component, [creating something] that can help streamline and address the intermittency that wind and solar bring to the grid." This incorporates the efforts already made by GM in creating the Chevrolet Volt batteries, which have been given a secondary purpose creating energy storage in their Milford Proving Ground data centre office.

Big promises, but who’s keeping tabs?

GM has big plans and are promising a lot, but as a company which despite recent energy attempts has a muggy history of environmental scandals, making it interesting to see whether they pull it off.

In 2006 for example the Political Economy Research Institute rated General Motors as the 20th worst polluter in the U.S. But over the last decade GM have clearly made a large amount of progress towards becoming an environmentally reliable company.

RE100 produces an Annual Review of the successes of its collaborators, keeping track of their consumption and production of renewable electricity throughout the year. They insist GM along with the other RE100 companies meet credibility and transparency requirements which are verified by a third party, so it should be clear if GM does or doesn’t fulfil their promise.

Running a multinational organisation off of 100% renewable energy is a massive task, but GM seems determined and has a solid plan of action to meet this target. We can only hope they succeed.