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Electric motors provide buzz at GM’s White Marsh plant

Four years ago, General Motors’ future in the Baltimore area was hardly certain after the automaker shed all of its Allison Transmission business except its White Marsh facility, which made automatic transmissions for full-sized pickup trucks.

But since then, the facility has played an important role in GM’s manufacturing strategy.

And Tuesday’s groundbreaking for a new electric motor plant — part of a $269.5 million investment in the facility — will not only double the workforce but make it more crucial to the automaker. Slated to open for the 2013 model year, the plant will develop and manufacture electric motors for plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles.

“With the commitments the company has made here, while we don’t take anything for granted, means we’re in a very good spot to drive our future,” General Motors Baltimore Operations Plant Manager Bill Tiger said. “We have a good, solid workforce and product, and we’ve really got an opportunity to make something good here.”

Funding the new plant comes from a $129 million investment from GM with $105 million coming from the federal government through a Department of Energy grant through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Baltimore County will provide up to $6 million in grants if investment and job milestones are met, and the state is providing a $3 million conditional grant through the Maryland Economic Development Assistance Fund and a $1.5 million grant from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Workforce Training Fund.

In 2007, the plant stayed open primarily manufacturing A1000 series automatic transmissions used in the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra lines of trucks. It is also the exclusive manufacturer of GM’s rear-wheel drive, two-mode hybrid transmission. The company uses the transmissions in vehicles like the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs. The 425,000-square-foot plant opened in 2001, and employs 206 people.

The new facility will be built alongside the existing buildings at the White Marsh campus and will be the first in the company to design and manufacture electric motors, a key component for GM future products. The company said the plant should generate 200 more jobs at the location. State, local and federal officials welcomed the news that GM had selected the Baltimore County location for the plant.

“GM has continuously demonstrated its confidence in Baltimore County’s business community and the workers in White Marsh by adding new product lines that are transforming energy use and transportation efficiency,” said Baltimore County Executive Kamenetz. “This new plant means new green manufacturing jobs and represents significant investment in a sustainable future.”

GM used to have a significant presence in the Baltimore area, where it had a manufacturing facility on Broening Highway. The plant, which manufactured GMC Safari and Chevy Astro minivans at the tail end of its life, was shuttered on May 13, 2005.

Along with the groundbreaking on Tuesday, GM unveiled a new rooftop solar energy array that will help power the campus. The solar array is capable of generating 1.23 megawatts and could account for about 9 percent of the campus’ energy needs.

Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group owns and operates the solar array and will sell electricity back to GM at a lower price. Constellation declined to say how much the new array cost, but an industry rule-of-thumb is that solar power costs about $5 million per megawatt generated.