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Volkswagen Installs Huge Solar Array At Chattanooga Plant

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Volkswagen flipped a large ceremonial switch yesterday that signaled the official launch of a huge array of photovoltaic solar cells at its Chattanooga assembly plant, which builds the Volkswagen Passat mid-size sedan.

The new solar field can supply up to 12.5 percent of the plant’s total energy needs, adding to an already low-carbon electricity supply that includes roughly 50 percent nuclear and hydro generation.

With a generating capacity of 9.6 megawatts of direct current, the 33-acre solar field is the largest one at any industrial plant in the world, the largest in Tennessee, and the largest at any automaker.

Fully 65 acres of land on the 1,400-acre plant site are dedicated to the solar array, whose total energy production is 13.1 gigawatt-hours each year—or roughly the energy used by 1,200 homes.

It was designed and built, and is owned and operated, by Silicon Ranch, at an approximate cost of $28 million. The photovoltaic solar panels are manufactured by Phoenix Solar, the U.S. arm of a German photovoltaic manufacturing firm. The cells themselves were fabricated in China and Mexico.

The field was actually first powered up in November, but today’s event brought together executives from Volkswagen Group AG, local dignitaries, and both businesses and environmental journalists.

Volkswagen will not get a payback on the solar power, according to Frank Fischer, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. But the photovoltaic array is part of an entire set of sustainable manufacturing practices—under VW’s “Think Blue” sustainability philosophy—that is cutting the company’s manufacturing costs substantially. It includes reductions in energy, materials, and water use, and cut both airborne emissions and waste.

The solar field is the last of several elements required to earn the Chattanooga plant a prestigious LEED Platinum designation for sustainability. It thus becomes the only auto assembly plant with a Platinum rating, which requires a diverse array of best practices in sustainability.

The Chattanooga plant is intended to be a benchmark in sustainability for an auto assembly plant, and a role model for VW plants around the world, said Wolfram Thomas, VW Group’s senior vice president for environment, energy, and new business areas.

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Enlarge Photo

The plant is built, for instance, on a brownfield site where TNT was formerly manufactured. The construction process included measures to minimize land erosion, and roughly three quarters of the construction waste was recycled.

The plant is lit partly with natural light through skylights, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of rainwater are gathered each year from its roofs for use in flushing toilets.

Much of the 1,400 acres on which the plant sites will remain as wetlands, and a stream running through the property was diverted to provide more absorption of rainwater to reduce the impact of runoff on local rivers.

The Passat itself is manufactured using best assembly practices, especially in the paint shop. It does not use a primer paint coat, and water-based paints, dry powder absorption of overspray, and other techniques combine to reduce emissions and cut water use.

VW Chattanooga plant

VW Chattanooga plant

Enlarge Photo

“We are Germans,” said Thomas in his introductory remarks. “We are thorough.”

That thoroughness applies, in this case, to the company’s approach to spreading sustainability practices across its global network of parts and assembly plants. VW Group opened its 100th global plant, an engine-building facility in Silao, Mexico, last week.

The company plans to cut its overall carbon emissions in 2015 by 30 percent over the level in 2006, and it has committed to make every new generation of a given car line 10 to 15 percent more efficient than the car it replaces.

Volkswagen provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person report.

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Comments (22)
  1. That is really excellent.

    Starting a few years ago, I switched over to designing factory automation equipment. There seems to be ZERO interest in energy efficiency. Relays are greatly oversized and consume electricity all the time. Typically there is no "sleep" mode for any of the equipment despite it all being computerized and technically advanced. So a lot of automation equipment consume nearly as much power at idle as when it is being used.

    Hope VW has addressed this as well.
     
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  2. Interesting point and perspective, John, so thanks for sharing this. I'm not knowledgeable enough here to really comment but again, thanks for sharing and offering "food for thought."
     
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  3. Solar power is getting a very bad reputation around the world
    and counties are learning all of the negatives about the technology. Italian utilities have slashed prices paid for solar as a result of near bankruptcies. Italy has also banned any further installation of solar panels. Germany, which had gone whole hog for solar, is now building coal power plants and
    solar sales in that country have collapsed, as have many solar panel manufacturers. If not bad enough, a recent survey of 30 energy analyses found solar power to cause three times the carbon emissions of nuclear and more than half that of natural gas. Solar is a source of dirty energy, despite false claims by the solar industry. Costs are twice what they claimed. Solar sucks
     
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  4. @Kerry: Please provide links to support the assertion that solar is "getting a very bad reputation all around the world" and that Italy has "banned any further installation of solar panels" and so forth.

    Those claims are not supported by what I see, so I'm eager to learn where you're reading or hearing this stuff.
     
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  5. John - if you google "Kerry Beauhrt" you will see where this guy posts. It's a virus, troll, whatever. He should start his gas car in his close garage and inhale the smell of freedom!!
     
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  6. Unfortunately all wrong. Germany installed last year 7.5 GWp. I have not heard of a single coal plant being commissioned in the country.
     
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  7. kerry is defintely a paid troll, she has all the signs of trolling.
    Wild accusations, no real profile, no links to articles.
     
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  8. I suspect "Kerry" is our old friend Kent Beuchert after sex-reassignment surgery.
     
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  9. Chattanooga is served by the TVA. Since this project had to be in the works and approved prior to the 1st of October 2012, the terms for power produced are very favorable. Even since Oct 2012 when the incentives were lowered a bit, the incentive for producing renewable energy through a TVA distributor are pretty good.

    It amazes me that more people who are served by TVA are not little independent power producers.
     
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  10. I like solar panels better then wind farms they should be on building too all of them! Adds more jobs and research can be done to improve them its better then already taking up space on grass fields few are OK but if most are on buildings then that less wasteful and manufacturing and maintenance adds jobs too! It is very efficient!
     
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  11. With wind and solar, it's not an either-or situation in many places. Texas, for example, has lots of wind turbines but they also have terrific insolation but relatively little solar.
    And wind turbines don't take up much space individually, which is why farmers like them - they can be paid for leasing some space and still grow crops.
     
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  12. Also it could be used to cool down places have them on house on buildings in places that are mostly warm and on land on cold places!
     
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  13. If home owners in states with little incentives, get a 10-15 year payback for solar systems that will last 25-30 years; how can WV buying in volume, and with all the tax breaks I am sure Tennessee is giving them on the system, not get their money back???
     
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  14. "With a generating capacity of 9.6 megawatts of direct current, the 33-acre solar field is the largest one at any industrial plant in the world, the largest in Tennessee, and the largest at any automaker."

    It may be the largest in Tennessee, but isn't Renault's 10.4MW system at Douai bigger, and it's at an automaker site:

    http://myrenaultzoe.com/index.php/2012/11/renault-press-release-renault-introduces-worlds-largest-photovoltaic-system-in-the-automotive-industry/
     
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  15. @Trevor: Errr, no. The system at Douai produced 10,400 megawatt-hours per year, per the press release, or 10.4 Gigwatt-hours. But the Volkswagen Chattanooga installation produces 13.1 gigawatt-hours per year--or roughly 30 percent more energy.
     
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  16. $28 million dollar facility, 9.6 Megawatt 13.1 Gigawatt Hours of production.

    $2.91 $/watt installed, 1364 productive hours per year. $1.4 Million in annual production at 11 cents/KWH, more if they pay time of day charges. 19 year payback assuming no incentives.
     
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  17. Finally, someone addressed that stupid statement by the German in the article that there is no payback for this solar array. Thanks Pat! There is always a payback! It may be 2 years, 12 years, or 60 years but there is always a payback point. And, your numbers are conservative estimates of the price of electricity for many years to come. Price per kwh of electricity is likely to double in the next twenty years so the payback should be more like 10 years for this array instead of 19...again, assuming no incentives which is almost unthinkable for such a big, media attention grabing project.
     
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  18. John,
    Why do you use such an old picture of the "design" of this plant? From 2011...really? I'm sure the roofs aren't gray either as a leed platinum building will likely have skylights, "cool" white roofs, or better yet like Juan suggested...solar panels as or on top of the roofs to deflect heat as well collect power.

    Also, its great to hear VW is making great strides to improve their factory renewable energy use, pollution, resource conservation, energy efficiency, etc. But when are they going to spread that forward looking perspective to their vehicles? The base Jetta, for example, gets the worst mpg in its class...ridiculous. I hear VW is finally dropping a new, efficient 4 banger in their small cars soon. Their diesels r great tho
     
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  19. 10 - 15% mpg improvement each design cycle I think is the new norm for most vehicles now. VW will have to do better then that if they want to catch up to their rivals at Honda, Nissan, Ford, etc.
     
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  20. @Erik: In looking closely at the photo, it's actually a model. We had it in the photo library and I didn't look too closely. The actual roofs of the plant, however, a white silver-white color, so this one isn't too far off. And, you're right, the assembly plant portion does have skylights.
     
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  21. The plant doesn't have solar panels on the roof; this article essentially explains why. The roofs are designed instead to gather rainwater, which is used both for flushing toilets and for cooling hot tools.
     
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  22. I wonder why they couldn't do both; it's not as if the panels would absorb rainwater and the runoff would have to go somewhere.
     
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