A Conversation With Britta Gross, GM's Director of Energy Systems

BGross-Post.jpgReducing road pollution may not be rocket science, but it's probably just as challenging. If you're not convinced, ask electrical engineer Britta Gross, one of the masterminds behind General Motors' electric- and hydrogen-powered cars (who incidentally began her career as a rocket scientist).

Gross got her start creating satellite programs for an aerospace company in California, but today she's GM's director of global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization, which means she figures out the best ways to charge alternatively-fueled cars. While high petroleum consumption continues to tax the environment and our wallets, Gross is working to develop fuel cells that can generate energy by converting hydrogen and oxygen into water, and plug-in batteries, which use chemical energy from rechargeable battery packs.

Here, Gross discusses the job perks of a sustainable engineer, her dream of recycling CO2 into limestone brick homes, and why Smokey the Bear deserves an eco trophy.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I work for GM -- determining what kind of fueling infrastructures we need for vehicles that don't run on gasoline, and how that infrastructure, like electrical infrastructure, should roll out. I have to consider what kind of partnerships we'll need and whether there will be any energy issues we'll have to solve along the way if millions of these vehicles are sold.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainability?

I think the electric car is a great example of bringing tangible, sustainable ideas to the consumer. Take one drive in the Chevy Volt and the reaction is almost always, "Wow! I wasn't expecting that!" The ride, handling, speed, acceleration, and quietness are so phenomenal that it catches people by surprise -- they're often expecting an electric car to drive like a golf cart, and the Volt couldn't be further from that.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

I think most people have the perception that engineering is boring. And in my experience, this couldn't be further from the truth. Some of my many experiences include a field trip to Iceland to see how geothermal energy works; a trip to a nuclear reactor to better understand how hydrogen could be produced using nuclear energy; a high-speed ride around a race track with a professional race car driver; and explaining the Chevy Volt to a room full of European journalists and a room full of power company executives. Almost every week there's something exciting and new to do.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I could be totally self-serving on this question and again say that the Volt will shake up the sustainability world, because the notion of extending the range with a gas generator beyond the limited electric range is a practical pathway to sustainability that hadn't been thought of previously. Before, it was all or nothing.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The trend I wish we would move away from is overpromising consumers that sustainable options don't cost more. We're not doing anyone a favor by suggesting that solar is almost cost-competitive or that batteries can be as cheap as ICE engines -- both are much more expensive technologies. I think we're much better served if we can get consumers to understand that up until now we've taken the cheap paths, and look where that got us. The reality is that sustainable pathways will cost a bit more (though we have to do a great job of reducing the cost as much as possible). We haven't been paying our fair share of the true costs of our existing cheap pathways. But investing in sustainable solutions is the only responsible thing to do and it's worth it to our planet.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Several years ago while working on hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles, I really loved the idea of storing large quantities of CO2 in underground caverns and converting the CO2 into limestone through a simple chemical reaction. I imagined building houses out of the resulting limestone "bricks." I won't say that this will never happen, but at the time I really thought it could happen soon. I was very optimistic then, but I still love the simplicity of this idea.

Who are three people you'd put in the public sustainability Hall of Fame?

To be honest, I think a lot of the credit for our appreciation of sustainability (at least among people in my generation) goes to Woodsy Owl ("Give a hoot -- don't pollute!"), the Crying Indian ("Keep America beautiful"), and Smokey the Bear ("Only you can prevent forest fires!"). Anyone who remembers these public service campaigns from the '70s had these three characters and messages ingrained in their heads. And I think many of us do understand how important sustainability is to our future here on this planet. But sometimes we lose focus because the solutions can take a long time to implement and are often more costly than just following the same old habits. The electric vehicle is a good example -- GM spent over a billion dollars developing the Chevrolet Volt -- and we can't expect to see large volume production and large volume sales for years to come. It's a very long-term investment.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Math, music, and pre-med -- I tried them all in college before settling on electrical engineering. I really liked the problem-solving aspects of big engineering problems.

What's one website or app you wish more people knew about?

GoElectricDrive.com -- a collaborative website that was started by a bunch of automakers and utilities to help consumers understand everything about electric vehicles. It keeps growing with more and more content as new industry players join and as questions come in to us.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

I should probably say something like "Electric Car," by They Might Be Giants. But actually, the song stuck in my head these days is "Lucky," by Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat.