GM to use solar energy

Beltsville firm will install panels on roof of White Marsh plant

August 22, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

General Motors announced plans yesterday to install 8,700 solar panels on the roof of its White Marsh transmission plant by spring through a partnership with Beltsville's SunEdison, North America's largest provider of solar energy services.

The 300,000-square-foot solar project will be one of the biggest on the East Coast, generating enough electricity to power up to 150 households and reducing the plant's utility bill along with its reliance on Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

The proposal is part of an effort to lessen the automaker's impact on the environment and cut costs amid hemorrhaging U.S. sales.

Last month, GM said it would slash $15 billion in spending through 2009 by laying off workers, cutting certain retiree health benefits and suspending its dividend for the first time in 86 years.

SunEdison LLC, which is negotiating a possible state incentive package, will bear the entire cost of the project and, during a 20-year contract period, sell the power it generates to GM, which can then claim yet another eco-friendly move.

General Motors Corp. has some of the country's largest rooftop solar-panel installations on two of its West Coast buildings and plans to have the world's largest by the end of the year at a car-assembly plant in Spain.

Last year, the General Motors Powertrain Baltimore Transmission Plant, which makes hybrid and heavy-duty pickup transmissions, became the first in the company to reach "landfill-free status," meaning it no longer sends its waste to landfills, but instead recycles or reuses all of it.

"GM has the ability to make a significant positive impact," John R. Buttermore, GM Powertrain's vice president of global manufacturing, said during a news conference on the plant's lawn yesterday morning, with a Cadillac Escalade Hybrid strategically placed behind the podium.

At the news conference, Gov. Martin O'Malley, who drives a GM Tahoe Hybrid, praised the development and its American roots: The energy is generated and used here, he said. It is "not being pumped out of oil fields in Iraq."

There's been a push toward more alternative energy forms - including new nuclear reactors, which fell out of favor after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 - over the past few years, in particular as rates rise and a nationwide shortage looms.

Maryland, which has seen BGE residential electricity prices spike 85 percent since the industry was deregulated in 1999, has been called likely to experience rolling blackouts as early as 2011 if other energy sources aren't established. Calvert Cliffs could become home to the country's first new nuclear plant in three decades if BGE's parent, Constellation Energy Group, moves forward with a proposal to build there.

Maryland recently passed legislation requiring that 20 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2022; at least 2 percent of that must be solar-generated, creating a predictable market for companies like SunEdison, O'Malley said.

"This is a state that's good for this sort of business," the governor said.

Kelly Speakes-Backman, a spokeswoman for privately held SunEdison, declined to say how much the project would cost or what rates the company planned to charge GM, saying only that they were "close to or under retail." The company operates like a traditional power supplier in many ways, providing the materials and maintenance, then charging for the energy used. Should the GM plant produce surplus power, it will go back into the grid for SunEdison to sell to someone else.

Maryland's current energy prices put the state at a competitive disadvantage, said David S. Iannucci, executive director of Baltimore County's Department of Economic Development.

GM's commitment to solar speaks to "the long-term viability of the plant," he said.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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