With the amount of energy required to produce a vehicle, it makes sense that automobile manufacturers are exploring solar power to help cut costs and position themselves as environmentally-conscious companies. Incorporating solar energy into their operations is already popular among European vehicle manufacturers: from SEAT’s 10.6 megawatts (MW) of solar on the rooftops of its facilities in northern Spain to Renault’s 55 MW project that will cover the roofs of its six French plants — currently the world's largest installation for the auto industry.
But the Detroit, Mich.-based General Motors (GM) has high solar aspirations as well. Across the globe, the auto manufacturer has already installed roughly 37 MW of rooftop and ground mounted solar, according to Rob Threlkeld, GM's renewable energy manager. “We have a footprint in over 130 countries, so it really gives us some ability to look at all alternatives and put solar on as many facilities as we can financially make viable,” he said. In Spain alone, GM's rooftop solar installation is one of the world's largest; able to generate 12 MW at its highest output.
New Projects in Warren, Michigan
The American auto manufacturer made headlines last week when it announced the completion of four new photovoltaic (PV) solar projects at its Warren Technical Center campus just north of Detroit. Completed by Empower Energies, the projects include a 49 kilowatt ground-mounted solar array and three electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.
The EV charging stations are what Threlkeld predicts will help “bridge the gap” between utility companies’ interests and clean energy. “Electric vehicles are a very strong point where I think utilities are interested in getting engaged and understanding about the impacts on the grid,” Threlkeld said. “You bring solar and electric vehicles together as a package, it really allows us to work with the utilities and engage them on both renewable energy and the electric vehicle side.”
GM Joins SEIA
In February, GM joined the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA); a move that solar energy experts have called a “game-changer” for the industry. Threlkeld hopes that GM’s commitment to solar and experience as an end-user will have a positive influence on both its suppliers and the utility companies it negotiates rates with — some of the largest in the nation. GM also has leverage in terms of education. “Where we’ve got 5,000 employees in an assembly plant, we’ve really got 5,000 stewards who can go out and educate [others] on solar and how it can work in areas where you may not have as much sun, like Michigan,” Threlkeld said.
In 2012, the SEIA rated GM the nation’s top automotive solar user. In its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report, GM reveals that it's doubled its commitment to solar power — from 30 megawatts to 60 megawatts — by the end of 2015. The company has committed to using a total of 125 megawatts from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Auto Manufacturers and Solar Companies Join Forces
GM isn’t the only auto company dedicated to solar power. Honda Motor’s U.S. division partnered with SolarCity earlier this year to finance a $65 million tax equity fund to provide solar panels to American Honda and Acura customers and dealerships. The fund will finance solar systems for 2,500 to 3,000 homes and 10 to 20 dealerships in the 14 states that SolarCity serves.
"This is really the first initiative like this," said Steve Center, vice president of the environmental business development office for American Honda Motor Company. "We've got some of the most sought-after customers in the marketplace."
The initiative may be unique, but auto companies have partnered with solar panel manufacturers in the past. In 2011, Ford Motor Company and Sunpower Corp. joined forces to offer Ford Focus EV consumers a discount on a rooftop solar PV systems under the ‘Drive Green for Life’ program. “Focus Electric owners can reduce their total cost of ownership by generating enough energy from their high efficiency SunPower rooftop solar system to offset the electricity required to charge the vehicle at night," said Ford Motor Company spokesman Mike Tinskey. “It’s an eco-friendly solution.”
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