Car Manufacturing, Assembly Gets Greener As Plants Cut Waste, Energy Use

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Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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You could produce the cleanest, greenest vehicle on the road, but if your factory belches out black smoke and creates thousands of tons of landfill, that car's green credentials will always be hindered by its production.

That's why all the major automakers are making strides towards improving their factories these days too, with low waste plans, solar power and more.

It becomes all the more important when the cars themselves get cleaner--like the latest wave of electric vehicles.

Chattanooga: VW's model for efficient production

As Wards Auto reports, Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will become a benchmark for future VW car production facilities. Four factories currently in construction in China, as well as an Audi plant in Mexico, will all use Chattanooga as a blueprint for cleaner, sustainable and more efficient production.

We witnessed this first hand when visiting the plant's huge new solar array back in January.

The 65-acre field produces around 13.1 gigawatt-hours per year, enough to supply 12.5 percent of the plant's total energy needs--on top of the near 50-percent nuclear and hydro-generated power already supplied to the facility.

Other concessions to sustainability at the plant include its location--on a brownfield site, rather than freshly excavated land--rainwater collection, and plenty of natural light from skylights.

The Passat built at the plant is made using best assembly practices, and cleaner, more environmentally-friendly paint finishes are also used.

Other plants, other ideas

Volkswagen isn't the only factory to minimize its impact. Daimler-owned Smart has been claiming similar aims for its Smartville facility in Hambach, France, since the company debuted in the 1990s, and Ford has been building pickup trucks in a naturally-insulated factory in Indiana for years.

Just a few days ago, Honda announced an in-development test track facility will contain 70,000 solar panels, not only powering facilities for its car development, but also enough to sell on as green energy.

Startups such as Tesla Motors and tiny automaker Elio motors have occupied older factories rather than building entirely new facilities--saving cost, as well as reducing materials--while the Tesla is even full of refurbished machinery and Ikea furniture--and with electric cars, its test track can be built indoors, rather than requiring more land outside.

It goes on: Subaru's plant in Lafayette, Indiana, won awards for its zero-landfill, 100-percent recycling policy. And one idea not used at VW's Chattanooga plant, but considered following a similar VW facility in Germany, was geothermal heating and cooling using the building's foundations.

Win-win?

Sustainability is a huge goal for auto manufacturers. It's not only great for the image of car manufacturing, but most automakers are finding it saves them money too, in a time when every penny is being squeezed.

Ford plans to reduce energy use in its plants by 20 percent by 2016, and cut water usage and waste by 30 percent by 2015, according to Wards. Water savings in 2012 alone amounted to $3 million.

Win-win changes are rare in the auto industry. As many automakers are finding out, moving toward electric cars is a very expensive process, with payoffs far into the future. Were it not for political pressure and financial incentives, many probably wouldn't bother.

But making production facilities greener also makes them more efficient, and greater efficiency reduces costs. Large-scale manufacturing will never be truly green, but cumulative improvements could put the auto industry right at the forefront of greener manufacturing.

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