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GE's Big Order of 25,000 EVs (Starting With Chevy Volts) Could Inspire Others

In one fell swoop Thursday, General Electric became the world's biggest EV customer, and its outsized influence may lead other large companies to take the plunge, too. GE -- which, after all, has the word "electric" right there in its name -- announced Thursday that by 2015 it would buy an awesome number of electric cars, 25,000. And it's starting with 12,000 from General Motors (presumably Chevrolet Volts, because GM doesn't make anything else that plugs in).

The move makes sense, because GE is betting heavily on EVs and their connection to the smart grid -- it's doing everything but actually making cars. The centerpiece of the company's strategy is the WattStation EV charger, which will be sold in both public and home versions. In September, GE said it was partnering with charging company Better Place on technology, consumer awareness, battery financing and fleet electrification. Better Place is the company that can actually put poles in the ground. It's quite likely that WattStations will also be sold in big box stores, and installed by the Geek Squad or their equivalent.

Here's GE talking about its plans on video:

I had thought that GE would announce a big purchase of Nissan Leafs, but it went for the "range extender" Volt instead. And I see why. GE says at least half of its 30,000-strong sales force will end up behind the wheel of EVs, and salespeople log a lot of miles. The Volt has another 300 miles or more left after its battery-only range is expended. And, of course, there's the made-in-America thing. The Leaf will eventually be made in Tennessee, but not until 2012.

GM is happy, obviously. "Today is the tipping point for electric vehicles," said Rob Peterson of GM PowerTrain Communications. "This is without a doubt one of those key dates that provides a lot of credibility for the Volt and the whole electric vehicle market."

I like the "tipping point" thing, because EVs have mostly, to this point, been involved in small demonstration programs. Aside from Tesla's 1,300 Roadsters, very few have actually hit the road yet. GE's buy isn't just the largest purchase so far, it's the start of an actual commercial market for EVs.

GE said its 25,000 order will likely include other manufacturers, to be announced down the road. That could include Leafs once there are more charging stations available. And it could also include more GM product, especially if the automaker deploys a battery electric (dare we call it "EV-2"?) before 2015.

GM has also built alliances with startups, including Bright Automotive, which is developing a plug-in hybrid utility van, currently known as the Idea, for deployment around 2013 or 2014. That could be a good GE fleet vehicle, too. In August, the automaker's venture capital arm, GM Ventures, announced a $5 million investment in Bright.

Michael Brylawski, executive vice president of Bright, said that the GE announcement is good news. "We do not have a current order with GE, but we're very supportive of what they're doing -- it's a very bold move, and very much needed."

Not all of the 25,000 EVs will be for GE's internal use. The company also has 65,000 fleet customers, and it will work with them on EVs. According to Jeff Immelt, GE's chairman and CEO, "Electric vehicle technology is real and ready for deployment, and we are embracing the transformation with partners like GM and our fleet customers."

It will be very interesting to see if other big customers, especially those with major vehicle fleets, follow GE's lead. FedEx President and CEO Fred Smith, who's allied with the EV advocacy Electrification Coalition, praised GE's move as "good for GE, good for our economy and good for our nation."

FedEx has started to deploy all-electric trucks. But the 1,869 alternative-fuel vehicles it had in the fleet by June of this year (enough to avoid 452,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2005 and 2008) could grow dramatically.

According to Oliver Hazimeh who heads the EV Practice at PRTM consultants, the GE announcement is "significant" because "it will likely serve as the catalyst for other fleets." If other companies see both financial and public relations advantages to EV fleets, the cars on the ground are likely to grow rapidly.