Key among the 10 ideas for business and country competitiveness that General Electric’s Chairman and CEO shared to open the SAE 2012 World Congress was that the U.S. must take a leadership role in the energy sector. And Jeffrey Immelt believes that is not just a pipe dream.
“The United States really doesn’t suffer from any challenges that can’t be solved through innovation and smart use of our natural resources,” he asserted during his April 24 keynote address in the AVL Technology Leadership Center. Beyond possessing “some of the best wind corridors [and] access to coal and oil in a variety of places,” a “core part” of this country’s energy potential lies with natural gas, Immelt noted.
“Natural gas vehicles have an important role…I still think it’s more applicable in the big-fleet truck applications, but we’re working both on fueling infrastructure as well as in fleet investment,” he said. “We have leadership in compressed natural gas (CNG), and we work on what’s called mini LNG (liquefied natural gas) capability, which would allow big fleets or perhaps units as big as railroads to get access to LNG and be able to transfer that into transportation fuel.”
Perhaps GE’s biggest commitment in terms of innovation in transportation is in the electric vehicle (EV) realm. “This is something that GE has been really investing in in some ways for decades, but has been more aggressive about in the last few years,” Immelt said, adding that the company is involved in many aspects of the EV “ecosystem.”
GE has a fully networked WattStation for a complete EV charging platform; it is working in China on complete systems for electric buses; and in its own fleet services operation the company has committed to purchase 15,000 EVs. GE also has basic investments in lithium and sodium batteries, started with its research into a hybrid locomotive.
“For every dollar invested in electric vehicles, GE has about 10 cents of content,” Immelt claimed. “So this is a business that makes sense for us over the long term…We only invest in things that we think can be long-term business competitive and long-term pervasive. We think electric vehicles can become that.”
Immelt stressed that an area in which the industry needs to get better is repurposing EV batteries after their life for power-generation applications, as a way to improve the overall economics and cost-effectiveness of batteries.
“The near-term challenge is all about cost,” he said. Another challenge he mentioned was consumer empowerment: “Once the utility/consumer interface gets resolved and you have more smart capability in the home, I think there’s going to be even more resonance and desire for electric vehicles.”
Regarding the smart grid for EVs, Immelt noted that any current impediments are not insurmountable. “I look at a lot of things in my day-to-day life that are technology problems; this isn’t one of them. I think every aspect of the electric vehicle can be done; every aspect of a smart grid can be done. This is a business-process issue; this is about incentives for utilities, incentives for consumers, getting things down the cost curve, and the commercialization process.”
A few other notable “ideas” from Immelt’s competitiveness list include the need for greater technology investment, the need to renew American manufacturing and to control the supply chain, and a commitment to high-skills training.
“There are 135,000 students graduating with engineering degrees in the U.S. every year; in China and India, that’s about 1 million,” Immelt said. “This is at the core of every country’s competitiveness. The number of engineers that are graduating is much more important than really any other source of human talent.”