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GM's Solar Mission: Volt Charging Stations

General Motors wants to make eco-friendly cars and make sure some of those cars get eco-friendly source of electricity. That's the idea behind the company's $7.5 million equity investment in Sunlogics.

Aside from making the investment through General Motors Ventures, the carmaker also signed agreements with Sunlogics to put solar panels on electric car charging stations at Chevrolet dealerships and GM’s own buildings. GM also has signed power purchase agreements to buy power from larger solar arrays that Sunlogics will build at GM’s facilities.

The automaker Friday said it plans to put solar charging stations at 24 dealerships in North America. Installations already have been completed for two dealers, one in California and the other in Michigan. GM and Sunlogics will pay for iinitial costs of the equipment, permitting and construction while the dealers will pay a monthly charge after the stations are completed, said Sharon Basel, a spokeswoman for GM.

The automaker launched the plug-in electric hybrid Chevy Volt late last year and set up a $100 million venture capital fund to support technology development in more fuel efficient gasoline or electric vehicles.

Installing solar panels at charging stations helps to avoid the inevitable jab by critics that electric cars aren’t as “green” as they appear because most of the electricity generated in the United States comes from power plants using coal and natural gas. Such projects also make a good marketing strategy, of course, as GM will face a growing competition in the young electric car market.

Expect more charging station owners or car dealers to do the same if the electric market takes off. SolarCity, which began as a solar system installer, announced this week that it’s now selling and installing electric car charging stations as well. The company’s proposition is that solar electricity can be had for cheaper than power from utilities, so electric car owners should just buy solar systems along with a home electric car charging unit.

Sunlogics, which lists Rochester Hills, Mich., as the location of its headquarters, plans to use some of the money from GM to set up a headquarters and build a factory Detroit. The company also plans to build factory in Ontario, Canada. Sunlogics makes its own solar panels using amorphous silicon. It uses its own panels and equipment from other suppliers to build power generation projects.

It's peculiar that GM chose a company that is using a technology that hasn't gained much traction in the market. We used to hear a lot more about startups developing amorphous silicon thin films a few years ago. Ever since Applied Materials ditched the business of selling factory equipment for making amorphous silicon panels last year, the industry's collective enthusiasm for the technology seems to have dissipated. 

But Sunlogics has served GM before. Sunlogics previously built solar arrays at GM facilities in Spain and California.

GM said its buildings are home to 30 megawatts of solar right now, and that number will grow to 60 megawatts “in the next few years.”


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