Critics of Tesla have long warned that investors should brace themselves for competition from other EV makers, and GM is a case in point. GM has just dialed its EV battery supply chain up to 11, and the company is also building on its decades-long experience with fuel cells to dip into the green hydrogen trend. What was that about fuel cells being meadow muffins, again?
GM Dials Up EV Battery Output
The big EV battery news from GM is a $2.5 billion loan, announced by the US Department of Energy earlier this week. The loan which will go to Ultium Cells, a joint venture that pairs GM with LG Energy Solution.
Ultium Cells will use the loan to ramp up production at its lithium-ion EV battery plants in Ohio, Tennessee, and Michigan.
The loan came through the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, and if that rings a bell you may be recalling the bankruptcy of the solar firm Solyndra, which received a loan from the same office.
Republican members of Congress made a lot of partisan hay over Solyndra’s failure during the Obama administration. However, overall the Loan Programs Office has been a success story. The office was established during the Bush administration in 2005, as a high-risk, high-reward kickstarter for US energy innovation.
“To date, LPO has issued more than $35 billion of loans and loan guarantees for more 30 projects and has a proven track record including transforming existing energy infrastructure, reviving nuclear construction, accelerating growth of utility-scale solar and wind, expanding domestic manufacturing of electric vehicles, and improving the lives of all Americans by catalyzing new energy technology and creating jobs,” LPO explains.
That EV manufacturing angle includes Tesla, which received a federal loan from the same office in its earlier iteration as Tesla Motors.
More EV Batteries For Everything
In a separate move on December 2, Ultium Cells also announced a $275 million investment that will increase production at its Spring Hill, Tennessee EV battery plant by more than 40%, to 50 gigawatt-hours.
“Ultium Cells expects to have more than 130 GWh of battery cell capacity when all three facilities are at full production capacity later this decade — a key enabler to GM’s commitment to lead the industry in EVs,” the company explained. “Ultium Cells will provide battery cell capacity to support GM’s North American electric vehicle assembly capacity of more than 1 million units by mid-decade, while supporting GM plans to supply other automotive companies and other industries including rail, aerospace, heavy trucking and marine customers.”
That’s quite a laundry list of potential customers. Aside from on-road vehicles, battery power is beginning to take hold in the areas of smaller electric watercraft and electric aircraft. Heavy duty applications are also emerging, including electric locomotives, fire trucks, and garbage trucks.
GM is doing its best to ensure that the use case for EV batteries keep growing. The company is a partner in Phase II of the Energy Department’s Battery500 Consortium, a public-private venture aimed at meeting a specific energy goal of 500 Wh/kg for a solid state lithium-metal EV battery while reducing the cost below $100 per kilowatt-hour.
The company started dropping hints about its interest in solid state technology last year. Another hint in that direction came about earlier this year, when GM identified the Korean company POSCO as one of its strategic suppliers.
The Fuel Cell Hedge
Despite its keen interest in battery-powered mobility, GM has not dropped the torch for hydrogen fuel cell technology, which it has been holding ever since it introduced the hydrogen powered Electrovan back in 1966. That particular venture didn’t last long, but GM began a long term collaboration with the US Army on fuel cell mobility about 20 years ago. All was relatively quiet until 2012, when GM provided a fleet of 16 fuel cell vans to the Army in Hawaii. The next year GM launched a fuel cell technology-sharing venture with Honda, and it’s been on a roll ever since.
In 2016 GM teased the idea diversifying its electric lineup into fuel cells as well as batteries. In October of 2017 the company followed through with a new vehicle electrification plan that included fuel cells. Last year GM also expanded its fuel cell activity into the zero emission aviation field, and indicated that its fuel cell technology is going to nudge diesel generators out of the power supply market for music festivals and other events.
As a diversified company, GM can also lean on its GM Defense branch to support both its EV battery and fuel cell businesses.
The Green Hydrogen Solution
Making the case for sustainable fuel cell vehicles has not been an easy task. Up until a couple of years ago, practically the only source of hydrogen was natural gas and other fossil resources. They still hold the lion’s share of the global hydrogen market, but the advent of low cost renewable energy has created an opening for electrolysis systems, which deploy electricity to push hydrogen gas from water. As costs for both renewables and electrolysis continue to fall, the so-named “green” hydrogen market has begun to accelerate.
In support of its fuel cell business, GM is among the firms to help accelerate the green hydrogen trend. Last month, the company hooked up with Nel Hydrogen US, a subsidiary of the global firm Nel ASA, in a joint development deal aimed at ramping up production of Nel’s electrolyzer technology and pushing down the cost of green hydrogen.
“By combining GM’s extensive fuel cell expertise and Nel’s deep knowledge of electrolyzers, the two companies are looking to enable more cost competitive sources of renewable hydrogen,” GM explained.
Everybody Loves Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
Speaking of Tesla, Elon Musk’s widely reported declaration that “fuel cells are so bull—t” does not resonate with quite the same force in 2022 as it did back in 2013. For that matter, neither does Musk himself, but that’s another story.
Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai have taken a lot of ribbing for trying to wedge fuel cell EVs into the US, but they have not given up and the technology is taking hold elsewhere around the globe. Other automakers are now eyeballing fuel cells to fill the growing demand for SUVs, including BMW and Jaguar Land Rover.
In contrast, GM appears content to deploy the EV battery of the future on passenger vehicles while reserving fuel cells for heavy duty use — for now.
“GM is developing and commercializing both HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel cell and Ultium battery technologies that deliver where it matters most: performance and cost,” GM has emphasized.
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Image: Electric vehicle platform courtesy of GM.
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