VW Chattanooga: A Model for Designing Ecological Sustainability Into Auto Manufacturing Sites

June 26, 2013

June 26, 2013

Andrew Burger for Important Media / CleanTechnicaGreen Building Elements

Auto manufacturing has been a fundamental facet of modern, industrial-era societies the world over since the days of Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Engines of job creation, economic development and growth, it has played a central and pivotal role in the unprecedented expansion of human population and gains in material wealth and comfort experienced over the past century.

Auto manufacturing also takes a heavy toll on societies and ecosystems, however, requiring vast amounts of energy and natural resources, as well as pumping out vast quantities of pollutants into our atmosphere, land, waterways and oceans. These costs have grown along with the industry and become increasingly apparent over the years. Changing with the times, automakers around the world are now turning to green site, building and manufacturing design to reduce the costs, and risks of doing business, including the toll they take on the environment.

The world’s third-largest automaker, Volkswagen AG is striving to position itself at the forefront of this trend, embedding ecological sustainability as a core business value and ethic throughout its worldwide operations. Here in the US, VW has invested over $1 billion in building the world’s first Green Building Council (GBC) LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum manufacturing site and LEED-certified auto manufacturing plant. The site and facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee is intended to serve as green site, building and manufacturing model that can be replicated at VW facilities the world over.

VW Americas; A. Burger

VW Americas.
Image Credit: Andrew Burger / CleanTechnica

VW executives recently offered media representatives, including yours truly, the opportunity to learn more about its ecological sustainability efforts in Chattanooga, hosting a day-long energy management workshop and site tour.

VW’s Vision of Ecological Sustainability Takes Shape in Chattanooga

Serving as a proving ground and model for increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions, water, materials usage, and waste for VW plants the world over, VW America’s manufacturing facility in Chattanooga embodies the sum total of Think Blue, the latest, five-year (2012-2018) iteration of the automaker’s global sustainability initiative.

Realizing incremental gains in energy usage and key sustainability performance indicators at Volkswagen Chattanooga won’t be easy. The facility is already equipped with the latest in high–energy efficiency mechatronic (mechanical electronics) robotics, manufacturing equipment, and process management and administrative systems — all configured to provide employees an optimal ergonomic work environment. All administrative and manufacturing facilities and processes have been thoroughly assessed and evaluated with an eye towards realizing VW’s comprehensive sustainability goals.

Nonetheless, with Think Blue, VW management aims to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, water use, waste, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at its manufacturing facilities another 25% by 2018. Part and parcel of this, VW AG management has earmarked $500 million to $600 million of capital to further enhance the overall social and ecological — as well as economic — sustainability of its global operations by investing in renewable energy projects.

Providing VW with a proving ground and benchmark for new facility and process features and enhancements that improve the overall sustainability of its operations, the sustained commitment to ecological sustainability VW is making was clearly evident at the Chattanooga site.

Why VW’s Think Blue Is Serious Green

With Think Blue, VW is ratcheting up its sustainability efforts, starting at sites such as the plant in Chattanooga ñ which manufactures the VW Passat for the US and foreign markets ñ and then globally. Design features incorporated and proved there have already been used in several other VW manufacturing facilities around the world, including in China and Mexico, VW executives told reporters.

VW Americas, A. Burger

VW Americas.
Image Credit: Andrew Burger / CleanTechnica

Indicative of how seriously VW is taking Think Blue, mangers’ annual bonuses are tied to achieving Think Blue’s sustainability goals, in which customer and employee satisfaction, environmental sustainability, product quality and performance, and profitability all factor in.

Commissioned in 2011 with a production line comprised of body, paint, and assembly shops, some 2,700 VW Chattanooga employees churned out 152,543 VW Passats last year, more than the manufacturing line’s 150,000 rated capacity.

Demonstrating the willingness to go beyond merely meeting local, national, and international standards for environmental and social responsibility, at Chattanooga, the global auto manufacturer has restored a brownfield site ñ a former US Army munitions storage and waste disposal facility ñ turning it into a wetland and forest reserve that now provides habitat for a variety of threatened native species as well as a recreation for residents and visitors.

On the social impact side, an initial class of 12 student apprentices is about to complete a rigorous, three-year work-study program that could see them earn associate’s degrees from Chattanooga State University, as well as be the first Americans to earn German national and VW technical certifications. That’s in addition to being offered full-time jobs at the plant should they pass their final exams.

Embedding Sustainability As A Core Value

Converging on the VW Chattanooga plant, an international team of VW executives and staff has developed a comprehensive, four-stage Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology that now serves as the template for its manufacturing facilities worldwide. Baseline references for 2012, embodied in four key performance indicators (KPIs) ñ energy, water, waste, CO2 and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) ñ have been established to mark progress.

VW Americas; A. Burger

VW Americas.
Image Credit: Andrew Burger / CleanTechnica

The first step in the LCA process entails performing a Life Cycle Inventory that includes assessing the Global Warming Potential (GWP), photochemical ozone creation and ozone depletion, and soil and water acidification profiles of its operations. These are verified by independent experts.

The three subsequent phases of VW’s LCA process extend to include all facilities and processes, vehicle service life and recycling, as well as accounting for upstream emissions, such as aluminum manufacturing. More streamlined and energy efficient, the new Passat’s 1.4-liter TDI BlueMotion is one example of the results, an enhancement that translates into lower vehicle emissions over the course of each vehicle’s lifecycle.

Green building elements incorporated at VW Chattanooga include recycled building materials and the use of smart insulation and energy-efficient lighting. Temperature regulation and heat recovery is enhanced by making use of light-reflecting foil on rooftops, six-inch thick insulation, air-to-air heat exchangers, and coat ventilation, which also results in enhanced air flow characteristics, a critically important health and safety attribute for an auto manufacturing plant, given the presence of potentially toxic chemicals and emissions.

Fresh air cooling is used at night or when outside air temperatures are low enough. LED and T5 fluorescent lighting, as well as design aspects meant to assure that a high level of natural light is used, helps minimize power consumption.

VW’s efforts to conserve water at the Chattanooga plant extend to harvesting rainwater to supply low-water toilets and shower facilities, as well as cooling robots in the body shop and other aspects of manufacturing and administrative processes. Stormwater is saved in basins and pumped into cooling towers for use in factory processes and for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC).

Dr. Jan Spies, who is in charge of manufacturing plant and site design for VW plant worldwide, stated:

ìWe’re trying to save water wherever and whenever possible. We think we can save 50 million gallons per year compared to a normal factory.î

Renewable Energy Greening Auto Manufacturing

And what would a green auto manufacturing plant be without green, renewable energy? Installed in 2011, four solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are up and running at VW sites in Germany.

VW Americas; A. Burger

Solar panels at VW Americas
Image Credit: Andrew Burger / CleanTechnica

At the VW Chattanooga plant, a 9.6 megawattt-DC (Mwdc)/7.6 MWac solar photovoltaic (PV) system is designed to supply 12.5% of the facility’s power needs. The solar PV system generates some 13.1 million kilowatt-hours per year of clean, renewable energy, which VW purchases from Phoenix Solar, which installed, operates and owns the solar PV system. Ground-mounted at a 25-degree fixed tilt, the clean energy produced enables VW Chattanooga to avoid some 6,100 metric tons per year of CO2 emissions.

While the solar PV system has exceeded expected peak production at times, a cloudy winter left overall power generation a bit below expectations so far this year. Solar energy is supplying around 7% of the facility’s total energy needs and about 14% of its electricity, VW Chattanooga’s energy and utility specialist David Gustashaw explained during a tour of the solar PV field, which spans some 33 acres.

The rest of VW Chattanooga’s electricity needs are met via the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) grid. TVA has been switching its dual-fuel generation systems from coal to natural gas, which also ìhelped knocked [the VW Chattanooga] site’s green emissions factor down,î he pointed out.

As Gustashaw put it simply when explaining why the world’s third-largest auto manufacturer chose to install a 9.6 MWdc PV system on site when a much smaller one would have been sufficient to demonstrate its green credentials,

ìIt’s a demonstration of our ethic.î

Spurred onward by environmental, climate change, and renewable energy goals in Europe, VW has laid out a strategic plan for shifting away from fossil fuels towards a diversified mix of renewable energy resources via which it intends to reduce its carbon and greenhouse emissions 40% from 2010 levels by 2020 and another 15% by 2030, Rainund Wunder, executive vice president for VW Kraftwerk Gmbh, explained.

Recent efforts include upgrading coal-fired power plants; installing high-efficiency, low emissions combined-cycle natural gas power plants; making use of combined heat and power (CHP) and cogeneration technology; and investing in wind, hydro, and solar energy projects. Renewable resources meet 24% of VW’s power needs at present. The plan is for that to increase to 35% by 2020, 50% by 2030, 65% by 2040, and 80% by 2050.

VW’s renewable power capacity totaled 47 MW as of 2011. Plans are for renewables to meet more than half the global automaker’s power needs, with the lion’s share being allocated to offshore wind power generation.

Why put so much time and effort and devote so much in the way of enterprise resources to energy management? As Dr. Spies succinctly put it, VW has found that it’s less costly to incorporate energy efficiency improvements and make manufacturing, management, and administrative processes recycling friendly from the start, incorporating them early in the design process.

More than half (55.4%) of energy consumption at the VW Chattanooga plant is used for heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting, as opposed to production line processes, Spies pointed out. ìConserving, recovering, and reusing energy is basically the core task when designing a plant, he said.