It’s Easy Being Green: Sustainable Motor Works

Aug32011

Major automobile manufacturers around the world are implementing sustainable practices from the construction of plants running on clean energy to improvements in the efficiency of assembly processes. This green automotive production has great potential.

Car manufacturing giants such as Toyota and General Motors have responded to the demand for more sustainable products, including automobiles. Both Toyota and GM have begun channeling “green power” through their factories by generating electricity from burning landfill gas, and from wind and solar energy. They’ve also started using green building certification for both production facilities and nonmanufacturing sites. Toyota and GM both emphasize the importance of design’s role in shaping the entire lifespan of a product, proposing initiatives ranging from the use of lightweight materials to design geared toward fuel efficiency and recyclability.

German manufacturer BMW is joining its green car-making peers. Though its products generally qualify as “premium” products for the consumer market, it’s a measure of the public demand for products made with less energy and more recycled materials that the definition of “premium” itself has shifted to include expectations for more efficient business practices and manufacturing processes in the automotive industry.

The company’s focus on leading the industry in clean energy ventures includes a “commitment to protecting the environment and continual implementation of sustainable methods of capturing renewable energy,” according to Josef Kerscher, president of BMW Manufacturing.

BMW’s subsidiary plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina—the largest automobile plant by workforce in the United States—has demonstrated longstanding dedication to sustainable automaking, ranking third on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the 20 strongest on-site generation clean power users.

Since 2003 the Spartanburg plant has collected, cleaned, and compressed methane gas from local landfills and used this to generate more than 50 percent of the factory’s energy. In 2009 the company invested an additional $12 million into its effort to recover and use even more landfill gas, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 92,000 tons per year and saving $5 million in annual energy costs.

Aside from making production more efficient, manufacturers also seek to add more sustainable materials to their finished products. For their 2008 Escape, Ford Motor Company installed 100 percent recycled fabric for all seating surfaces. By processing post-industrial waste material and recycling it into major automobile components, Ford conserves up to 600,000 gallons of water, the equivalent of 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide, and more than 7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

Some manufacturers are recapturing expended energy, which is an effective addition to already preexisting efficiency measures such as installing engine improvements or hybrid systems. Volkswagen’s work on thermoelectric exhaust systems found that electricity generated by waste exhaust heat and solar power could be stored and reused to reduce fuel consumption. And Honda’s work on the Rankine cycle, a steam-operated heat engine, uses exhaust from gasoline combustion to heat water into steam, which in turn creates fuel-conserving electricity.

Today’s major automotive manufacturers have committed themselves to realizing a cleaner industry. It’s unfortunate that some of these same companies pressured the Obama administration to weaken fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built from 2017 to 2025. But they are showing a clear effort to more efficiently produce cars with smaller energy footprints without compromising power or performance.