General Motors Looks Beyond Oil
By John Addison
April 17, 2008
“One of the most serious business issues currently facing General Motors is our product’s near total dependence on petroleum as a source of energy. To address this issue, we have been implementing a strategy to displace petroleum through energy diversity and efficiency,” explained Dr. Larry Burns, Vice-President of Research and Development for General Motors, during his keynote speech on April 2 at the National Hydrogen Association (NHA) Conference.
When Dr. Burns speaks, the industry listens because he directly influences the future of General Motors and of the auto industry. March was one of the worst in years for all vehicle makers. GM and Chrysler saw a 19% drop in sales; Honda a more modest 3% drop. There was a direct correlation in sales loss and fuel efficiency. GM and Chrysler fleets gulp oil refined fuels; Honda’s takes large sips.
Make no mistake, GM is determined to be less dependent on oil as Larry Burns clearly stated, “We view renewable biofuels, electricity, and hydrogen as the most promising alternative energy carriers for automobiles. We are working very hard and fast on all three fronts to develop and implement meaningful technology solutions that provide our customers with a range of choices from “gas-friendly to gas-free” vehicles.” Next generation biofuels, however, will likely take years to get from labs to large scale production. When available, they will primarily be blended with gasoline and diesel, rather than requiring new stations. GM, and other auto makers, is frustrated to see hydrogen in only a few dozen stations globally.
Electricity is the most promising alternative fuel for GM and most auto makers. Electric motors are far more efficient than gasoline engines. Electric motors are used in hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. In late 2010, General Motors will start selling the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that will give many drivers 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, because it will primarily run on electricity. In three years, consumers may have multiple plug-in choices including Toyota’s planned offering.
The Volt is an implementation of E-Flex. GM’s E-Flex is an electric drive system centered on advanced batteries delivering power to an electric motor. Additional electricity can be delivered by a small engine coupled to a generator, or by a hydrogen fuel cell. In the future GM could elect to implement E-Flex in a pure battery-electric vehicle.
Over two million vehicles now use electric motors and advanced batteries, thanks to the early success of hybrids. Electric drive systems will continue their strong growth as they are implemented in battery electric vehicles, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
The plug-in hybrids’ big competition will be battery electric vehicles (EV). London’s congestion tax is cascading into a growing number of cities that will require zero-emission vehicles. Announced EV offerings are coming by 2010 from Nissan, Renault, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and emerging players such as Smart, Think, Tesla, Miles, and a host of Asian companies that will display at the upcoming China Auto Show. With the average U.S. household having two vehicles, these EVs would be perfect for the 80% of U.S. driving requires far less than 100 miles per day.
Where does this leave hydrogen? Fleets. Hydrogen’s fleet use continues to grow, especially in public transportation. Three factors are contributing to the growth of hydrogen vehicles: energy security, success of natural gas vehicles, and the growth of electric vehicles.
Hydrogen delivers energy security by being available from a wide range of sources including waste hydrogen from industrial processes, electrolysis of water, biosources, and steam reformation of natural gas. Where truck delivery is avoided, all of these approaches significantly reduce greenhouse gases, source-to-wheels, in comparison to diesel, gasoline, and current biofuel alternatives.
In transportation, hydrogen may be the long-term successor to natural gas. There are about five million natural gas vehicles in operation globally. Over 90% of the natural gas used in the USA is from North America. Transportation use of natural gas has doubled in only five years. Natural gas vehicles are popular in fleets that carry lots of people: buses, shuttles, and taxis.
Natural gas is primarily hydrogen. The molecule is four hydrogen atoms and one carbon. Steam reformation makes hydrogen from CH4 and H2O. Hydrogen is used in fuel cell electric vehicles with far better fuel economy than the natural gas engine vehicles that they replace. For example, at Sunline Transit, their hydrogen fuel cell bus is achieving 2.5 times the fuel economy of a similar CNG bus on the same route. Specifically 7.37GGE to the CNG vehicle’s 2.95GGE. Sunline has a new fuel cell bus on order with even great expected gains.
Most early adapters of hydrogen vehicles are natural gas fleet owners with vehicles that use compressed natural gas. Some fleets are mixing hydrogen with natural gas and running it in the existing CNG vehicles. A common approach is a 20% blend with minor changes such as timing in existing engines.
Public transportation is hydrogen’s biggest success. The San Francisco Bay Area is now upgrading from six hydrogen fuel cell buses to twelve. The area will grow from carrying two thousand passengers a day on hydrogen, to five thousand, using lighter next generation drive systems with fuel cells whose warranties have expanded from 1,000 hours to 12,000 hours.
For the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler will use twenty hydrogen fuel cell buses which will transport over 100,000 visitors during the games, then continue as the majority of Whistler’s fleet.
Although hydrogen will grow in fleets that can install the fueling and the vehicles, it will be many years before average consumers consider hydrogen vehicles. Outside of Southern California there is a lack of public infrastructure. To achieve a range of 300 miles, most auto makers want high pressure (700 bar). In California, only Irvine offers the higher pressure. GM is putting nine temporary 700 bar fuelers in Southern California. GM is also putting another 100 hydrogen vehicles on the road.
Honda is ahead of all other hydrogen vehicle makers in offering its acclaimed FCX Clarity for $600 per month. It does fine with the 350 bar pressure offered at California’s 24 hydrogen stations and delivers a 270 mile range. The vehicle will probably only be offered to select individuals in California communities where public stations are available such as Irvine, Torrance and Santa Monica. Even for Honda, Fuel Cell Marketing Manager Steve Ellis observes that “Success with hydrogen is more like a marathon than a sprint.”
To succeed, all businesses must monitor their industry, looking for points of inflection that lead to a new paradigm. In talking with Larry Burns at the NHA conference he told me that he has seen the signs since 2001. 9/11, Katrina, and oil prices have signaled major changes. All the world’s major economies from the USA to China are highly dependent on imported oil. Dr. Burns now concludes that in 2008 we are at a tipping point.
He stated, “We truly are at a defining point in the development of the technology. What and how we execute over the next 5 years will shape the next 50 years!…Together, we must act rather than debate, create the future rather than try to predict it, and solve the challenges we face now rather than handing these challenges off to future generations.”
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