Climate leaders: Chevy, NRG Energy and the Eagles

While the new Congress appears likely to do nothing, or worse, to deal with climate change, and while expectations of the upcoming UN negotiations in Cancun are lower than low, GM’s Chevrolet, NRG Energy and the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles today all announced climate actions — which suggests that business will keep moving towards sustainability, with or without prodding from the government.

Briefly, the most entertaining news of the day is about the Eagles. (After last week’s Monday Night Football game,  I was tempted to write a headline saying: Philadelphia beats Washington, again! ) The team is installing 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels and a 7.6 megawatt on-site dual-fuel cogeneration plant (which can operate on bio-diesel or natural gas) at Lincoln Financial Field, which may well be, as the team boasts, the greenest sports stadium in the world. Here’s a mockup of the stadium provided by the Eagles.

“This is one of the most exciting things to take place in Philadelphia,” the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, at ceremonies shown on the web. “Having partners like the Philadelphia Eagles makes going greener much easier.”  Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Eagles, and his wife Christina expressed their passion for the “Go Green” initiative, which includes recycling, composting, water conservation as well as renewable energy. (The Eagles even planted 4,000 trees in a Louisiana state park to offset team travel.) Said Christina Lurie: “The Eagles have embarked on a never-ending sustainability journey.”

The deal make business sense for the Eagles, the team said in its announcement.  A Florida company called Solar Blue will install the wind turbines, solar panels and co-generation plant–which will provide about 70% of the electricity–at a cost of about $30 million. The company will charge the Eagles a fixed rate for electricity for the next 20 years. The announcement said the deal will save the Eagles “an estimated $60 million in energy costs,” an estimate that sounds like a best case scenario. (They can’t really know much they will save because no one knows what electricity from the grid will cost 10 or 20 years from now. And natural gas, which will fuel the generator, is neither renewable nor clean.) Nevertheless, the project has real symbolic value–think how many football fans, both at the games and watching on TV, will see how low-carbon wind turbines and solar panels can be used as substitutes for fossil fuels.

The Chevy announcement today is also symbolic–a $40 million investment in communities across the country to reduce greenhouse gases, by financing renewable energy, energy efficiency and tree-planting projects. The carbon reduction effort — which includes its own website, www.chevycarbonreduction.com — is timed to coincide with the release of the electric Chevy Volt. The company aims to offset about 8 million tons of carbon emissions, explaining:

GM estimates its new carbon-reduction goal equates to the emissions in 2011 from driving the 1.9 million vehicles Chevrolet is expected to sell in the United States over the next year. According to www.epa.gov, 8 million tons equals the CO2 emissions of one year of electricity use in 970,874 homes or the annual carbon reduction from 1.7 million acres of pine forest. Projects will be implemented during the next three to five years.

I spoke about the announcement to Joel Ewanick, GM’s vice president of marketing, who drove a Volt from Detroit to the LA auto show last week, who said that the Volt, the carbon-reduction projects and the fuel-efficient Chevy Cruze is part of a new approach to environmental issues from GM. “At the end of the day, we know we have to reduce the CO2 emissions from our cars,” Ewanick said. Rather than fight fuel-efficiency regulations or carbon controls, he said, “We’re going to use technology and innovation to tackle those challenges head on.”

Chevy expects to sell about 10,000 Volts in 2011 and another 45,000 in 2012, Ewanick told me, but the car will have an importance that goes beyond its sales figures. It had better–most analysts think there’s little chance that GM can make money on the Volt because of the high initial cost of its batteries. The hope is that the car will have a halo effect for Chevy, just as the Prius has  enhanced the Toyota brand.

“This is a car that we think will change the way people drive cars for the next couple of decades,” Ewanick said.

The clean energy and energy efficiency projects will be administered for Chevrolet by third-party organizations such as Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore.  Other NGOs advised GM, too, and the company won plaudits from the likes of Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, who is quoted in the news release as saying:

Chevy is an iconic emblem of America and it is a big deal that it is stepping forward to address one of our greatest challenges – moving us toward a low-carbon future…Chevy’s Volt and its clean energy investment both exemplify the bold leadership businesses can take today to address our changing climate.

Finally–and this is the most significant announcement of the day–NRG Energy says it will build the first privately funded network of electric car charging stations in the U.S. in Houston, of all places. [See Why the “Petro Metro” wants electric cars.] Working with local utilities and such retailers as Best Buy and Walgreen’s, NRG’s network, which is branded as eVgo (don’t ask me why the V is upper case), will including home chargers, about 50 to 150 chargers around Houston and incentives for employers to offer charging facilities to employees. It’ll cost about $10 million, which is pocket change in the world of merchant utilities such as NRG, as David Crane, the company’s CEO, noted in a call with reporters.

Crane, who drives a Tesla, is a big believer in electric cars as well as a supporter of clean energy. (NRG recently bought Green Mountain Energy, a retailer of clean electricity that operates in competitive electricity markets, like much of Texas.) He aims to establish eVgo as a national brand of charging stations, deploying an innovative business model: In Houston, consumers who sign a three-year contract will pay a monthly fee of $49, $79 0r $89, which includes a home charger and, in the case of the higher-priced plans, unlimited electricity from eVgo network stations. One minute of charging will deliver three to four miles of driving. (Details here, and for those of you who have been paying attention, yes, this is similar to Shai Agassi’s Better Place, which borrowed the model from the mobile phone industry. Instead of buying unlimited minutes for your monthly fee, you buy unlimited electricity.)

There’s no more need to pay for gas every time at the pump,   not that anyone will need pumps with all-electric cars.

“The service station of the future is your garage,” Crane likes to say.

NRG has a long list of partners in Houston, most importantly, Nissan, which is rolling out its electric Leaf. (Not the Chevy Volt, which relies on a gas engine to extend its range.) Others include Aptera, Hertz, Gulf States Toyota and SmartUSA for cars, AeroVironment and GE for the charging stations, and TXU Energy, a rival utility.

If Nissan sells lots of electric cars in Houston, and NRG and its partners sell lots of electricity, and the cars make economic sense for their owners — all big ifs — people will look back at this deal as a key moment in the electrification of the U.S. auto industry.

Electrification of cars will slow down what Crane called “the staggering transfer of American wealth to oil producing  countries.” And, of course, it will reduce GHG emissions.

Washington may not be ready to do much about that, but NRG is. Said Crane: “We believe society is trending towards sustainability.”

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  6. […] Nissan and other partners, NRG is building an electric car charging system around Houston. [See Climate Leaders: Chevy, NRG Energy and the Eagles.] For $80 a month, customers of an NRG subsidiary called eVgo can get a home charging system and as […]

  7. […] It also tells you that he’s a competitor.  The Redskins deal with NRG Energy, a Princeton, N.J.-based independent power producer,  took root at last year’s Super Bowl, after the NFL East rival Philadelphia Eagles announced that they were installing solar, wind and biofuel energy at Lincoln Financial Field. [See my 2010 blogpost, Climate leaders: Chevy, NRG Energy and the Eagles]. […]

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