Why being green means thinking blue for Volkswagen

Waterless technology, rainwater harvesting, Platinum LEED certification and the largest solar PV array of any car manufacturer in the US, Rob Bell finds out what's driving VW's 'Think Blue.Factory' strategy at its Chattanooga facility stateside

The cars we drive are a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, with CO2 – and other pollutants – delivered via exhaust pipes directly to the streets of the towns and cities where we live.

As a result vehicle manufacturers face a great deal of scrutiny (and regulatory action) related to the environmental performance of their products. Volkswagen is one of a number of car makers that sees greening their automobiles as a commercial opportunity, and the firm aggressively markets its Golf BlueMotion’s fuel efficiency and low carbon emissions.

However, VW’s commitment to reducing its environmental impacts goes beyond the on-road performance of its vehicles. Its strategy, Think Blue.

Factory, focuses on energy, water and waste at its manufacturing sites, with a target of reducing environmental impacts at every Volkswagen plant by 25% by 2018.

Guenther Scherelis, communications general manager for VW’s operations at Chattanooga, Tennessee, says: “Our company rests on three pillars – team spirit, passion for detail and Think Blue. Factory, which is about being environmentally sound and very aware of the impacts of our operations.”

VW’s factory at Chattanooga, which only opened in April 2011, has the company’s environmental principles built into every part of the building – insulation is of a higher standard than required by regulation for example – and every step of the manufacturing process. The latest initiative was the unveiling of a 9.5 megawatt photovoltaic generation farm, the largest operated by a vehicle manufacturer in the US but only the second largest (after its facility in the Navarra region of Spain) within VW Group itself.

Alongside this commitment to reducing emissions through renewable energy, a number of other technologies are being utilised to improve environmental performance, including rainwater harvesting and an innovative dry scrubber system installed in the factory’s paintshop.

These and other initiatives have earned the facility recognition from the US Green Building Council, which has awarded VW Chattanooga its top – platinum – ranking under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification scheme, making it the only vehicle manufacturing plant in the world to have achieved the highest level.

Scherelis says optimum environmental performance was planned for the site from the outset, as part of Think Blue. Factory philosophy, which he describes as “a long term world- and brand-wide programme to make production more energy and environmentally efficient”.

A consulting firm engaged during the construction phase of the site’s development made VW aware of the LEED programme, and a decision was made to get involved. Scherelis says: “When we learnt about the certification scheme we realised what we were already doing to meet our normal guidelines was sufficient to earn us a silver or gold rating.

“By modifying our plans and incorporating further environmental elements to the site design we were able to gain platinum certification. For example, we have efficient insulation, LED lighting so the plant doesn’t cause light pollution at night, preferential parking for low emission vehicles, and have installed efficient motors on the engines we use in our production processes.”

Then there is the new solar facility, which produces sufficient green energy to provide 12.5% of the site’s needs during operations and 100% of electricity required at weekends when no cars are being built.

And installing the facility didn’t cost VW a penny. David Gustashaw, an energy and utility specialist in VW’s plant infrastructure department, says: “The project was financed by a third party and we purchase the entire solar output through a power purchase agreement.”

VW Chattanooga has made a commitment to source 35% of its energy needs from renewable sources, and Gustashaw says the remaining 22.5%, not supplied by the solar array, comes from external providers through the Green-e renewable energy certificate accreditation scheme.

Alongside its use of renewable energy, VW has also set targets for reducing its overall electricity use through the introduction of efficiency measures. Gustashaw says: “We have an objective of a 20% reduction by 2018 through our Mach 18 strategy.

“We achieved a very good reduction in our first full production year, 2012, and are looking to achieve our goal through a balance of equipment-related projects and behavioural change.”

However, despite using other renewable technologies such as wind and hydro-electric generation at other VW manufacturing sites, there are no plans in place to increase the amount of renewable energy generated and consumed at Chattanooga, for a number of reasons.

Scherelis says: “Half a mile from the factory we have a nature park, and on the other side there are two protected wetlands, so there is no scope for expansion of industrial activity.

“Also, the site here is not so suited to wind power – although we have some tornadoes of course. Under normal circumstances wind speed is not sufficient or consistent enough to implement wind technology.

“We looked at landfill gas as there is a landfill around ten miles away, but both the quality and quantity were too low for it to be considered a long term prospect.”
Other environmental initiatives, however, have been undertaken at Chattanooga, in particular a rainwater harvesting system. Scherelis says: “We collect rainwater from the roofs and use them in our bathrooms and for cooling welding guns in our workshops.”

A second, “outstanding” technology – new to VW operations – is the dry scrubber system in use in the factory’s paint shop. Gustashaw says VW’s paint process is already significantly more energy-efficient than the industry average as the firm doesn’t use a primer coat – the only manufacturer in the US not to, he says – eliminating the need for additional equipment.

Gustashaw says: “We use a new paint process with a twofold advantage: improving the application technology and chemical constitution of the paint has made it possible to drop the primer coat while still maintaining the quality of the car paint at the same level. “With three paint layers we save one drying process and therefore about 20% energy. On top of this, the dry scrubber technology makes VW’s paint operations more resource efficient.

Scherelis says: “When you’re painting a car, no matter how advanced the technology you use, there is at least 20% overspray – paint that doesn’t hit the car. This is washed away with water, creating paint sludge, which is then pressed to minimise volume or heated to remove the water.

“For the first time we are using an air stream to wash away the overspray, which is then mixed with limestone dust to create a material that can be used by the cement industry, saving 20,000 gallons [90,921 litres] of water a day and meaning we do not produce any toxic waste in our workshop.”

But, regardless of certification, technology and renewable energy generation, it is the people that will really make the difference says Scherelis: “We wanted to produce a clean car in a clean factory. And it is the people who are really behind the concept of a green car.

“You can do everything technically possible to minimise impacts, but if staff do not turn off lights, switch off engines, or do not close water faucets, you won’t achieve your goals.

“Our team here is very environmentally aware, which is essential, because you can have any number of technical aids to improved environmental performance, but in the end it depends on the man running the machine.”

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