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.


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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Comments (5)
  1. The picture in this article make me laugh. Cutting down forest to build solar power plant? This is not green at all! Why they didn't put the solar panels on the roof of the factory? Or over the big parking surrounding it?

  2. Exactly! That is my first thought after seeing that picture.

    I have always said that solar panels belong to the roof of every house, every parking structure and every building.

    Cutting down trees to put solar panels is the last thing you should do.

  3. Well just a comment. That new VW car plant has about 44 acres of roof top that has nothing on it but some writing. Now that is a fantastic waste of space. It was wasteful to take the time and energy to cut down needed trees for the solar cells, when the VW factory roof has 44 acres of space. Just wire it into the factory. Fantastic idea but fantastic waste of space and N! or factory space. Also, right next to the factory is almost 100 acres of car parking that already has canopies!!!!!! Just put the solar cells on the car port canopies next to the VW factory. Duh! Great idea but you can be more efficient. Even Solyndra put the solar cells on the factories.

  4. The 44 acre roof is not big enough to hold this size array. It's also possible that the weight of the solar array is too much for the roof to handle. I ran into that problem on my roof and was forced to place my PV array on the ground. Going to roof tops is not always possible even if its the "best" place for solar panels.

  5. Now let's give some benefit of the doubt to VW! The article states that the plan was built on brownfields, so perhaps the trees were cut by a strip mining operation in years past. I don't think VW would cut down the trees just for its PV layout.
    But I could be wrong!

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