Car Manufacturers Seek a Solar Boost

Like the rest of us, advocates for renewables can fail to spot their true friends. Fans of the recent blockbuster Avatar might imagine that ecosystems get rescued by dreadlocked tree-huggers while the film’s bad guys are on the ecological frontline. Buzzcuts and heavy weaponry may jar with climate change aesthetics, but back on planet Earth, though, the US military is now spearheading the global assault on carbon emissions on a range of fronts, including solar power.

And the same goes for the motor industry, where the internal combustion engine’s environmental drawbacks seem to be spurring investment in renewables.

Certainly, the auto industry has strong incentives to step up a gear in emissions wherever it can. Almost a quarter of global oil production heads to the fuel tanks of cars and light trucks. What’s more, carbon emissions per watt from petrol-fuelled car engines outweigh those from even the dirtiest coal-fired grids, according to a 2007 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

But solar installations must compete for the sector’s attention with a full deck of alternative green technologies. While a long-heralded transition to electric vehicles continues to sputter, global automotive brands have invested in solar, wind, biofuels and hydropower.

In Germany, an aggressive target for six million electric cars on its roads by 2030 sets a challenge for the power sector as well as its automotive industry. If this goal can be taken seriously, where are the sustainable power sources to charge all these vehicles?

Daimler is already addressing this issue by buying up wind capacity. An initial investment already delivers enough clean kilowatts to the German grid to keep several thousand E-Smart cars on the road, according to the manufacturer. If sales outpace the company’s targets, it will invest in additional renewable power sources, says the firm.

Not to be left behind, BMW has installed four wind turbines to power a factory in Leipzig where it aims to assemble electric and hybrid models. Volkswagen operates a wind farm that supplies 20 GWh each year and has signed a deal to meet 10% of its 12 German plants’ power demand with hydropower from 2013.

Audi aims to pioneer ‘e-gas’ by using wind-generated electricity to split water molecules through electrolysis. The resulting hydrogen would help to make synthetic natural gas for fuelling engines.

Meanwhile, French carmaker Renault has opened a ‘zero-carbon’ factory in Morocco powered by wind turbines and cogenerating biomass boilers.

Solar in Greener Motoring

By comparison with ‘e-gas’, solar installations could appear lacking in technological glamour. But as a mature, proven technology, solar could offer an excellent fit for the automotive industry’s power needs. A series of solar PV installations at automotive manufacturing plants are already proving this fact.

As well as rolling out its flashy wind and biomass project in Morocco, Renault has installed what it describes as the auto industry’s largest PV project. Under a deal with the developer Gestamp Solar, six French plants have been equipped with solar panels totalling 55 MW.

The solar panels cover areas corresponding to the delivery and dispatch of the plants at Douai, Maubeuge, Flins, Batilly and Sandouville as well as the staff car parkings in Cleon and Maubeuge. Construction got underway in mid-2011 and was completed in early 2012.

While this project marked a step-change for solar PV at European automotive sites, Gestamp had already participated in two other PV projects for the sector: a 1.1 MW system for Lamborghini in Italy and an 8 MW system for Seat in Spain.

The Lamborghini project, at Sant’Agata Bolognese in the city of Bologna, consisted of three phases totalling 1.168 MW on the roof of the carmaker’s factory. The project’s special challenge was to allow normal production to continue during installation. Now, in addition to providing renewable power, the completed solar field optimises the facility’s existing surface.

Near Barcelona, in northern Spain, Gestamp has been developing PV at Seat’s Martorell plant since 2008. In a first phase, a pilot plant was built on the roof of the carmaker’s headquarters. Two plants, each of 2 MW, were then installed on the roofs of assembly workshops and on the canopies that cover two parking areas for finished vehicles.

The project continued with new plants on the roofs of other workshops at the Martorell factory and on the canopies of other parking lots, to bring total output to 10.6 MW.

Shelters installed in the parking areas to support the solar panels allow Seat to protect its newly manufactured vehicles from the weather and the paint-damaging effects of UV light. As with the installations for Lamborghini and Renault, the project’s environmental impact was reduced by using land already occupied by the carmaker’s facilities. On completion, solar panels will cover six plants, six workshops and the canopies of four parking areas.

Mitsubishi has also shown solar ambitions in Europe, albeit on a smaller scale, with a 50 kW array on the roof of its UK headquarters in Gloucestershire.

Targeting Carmakers

For Ben Hill, head of Trina Solar Europe, the automotive industry’s interest in PV rests on three factors: a feel for technology combined with economic opportunities and appropriate locations.

‘Firstly, as you might expect with automotive companies, we have found that there is a widespread culture of innovation in the use of technology,’ he said.

‘This has made decision-makers more open to think of innovative ways to improve the energy efficiencies of their manufacturing base.’

‘Basic economics’ then enhances manufacturers’ interest in PV installations. ‘Car manufacture consumes relatively high levels of energy and we have found that the higher the energy use, the greater the interest is in alternative sources of energy,’ Hill said.

‘This is particularly the case as government policies to reduce carbon emissions through taxation or other fiscal measures come into place,’ he added.

Finally, many factory units are large, flat-roofed buildings, which makes them ‘ideally suited’ for solar installations – although Hill cautions that some buildings were designed with economic efficiency in mind and can only carry their own weight. ‘Installations of PV panels may therefore not be possible without alterations to the basic structure to the building,’ he added.

Trina Solar’s determination to profit from PV’s apparent benefits for automotive plants may be seen in several projects. The company supplied 55 MW of panels for Renault’s massive investment in solar power and the Chinese panel maker has also engaged in a high-profile alliance with the Lotus Formula One racing team.


Trina Solar and Lotus stress the two companies’ shared commitment to values such as ‘technology, innovation and leadership’. But each firm also stands to pick up individual perceptual benefits. Trina Solar is placing itself at technology’s cutting edge through an association with Formula One’s relentless pursuit of excellence. Lotus is spotlighting the environmental responsibility of a sport with few aficionados in the green lobby.

Trina Solar’s exploration of solar PV’s potential contribution to motor racing has already borne fruit in projects with varying utility. The experimental end of the spectrum is covered a solar powered race driver’s helmet. Of greater immediate use is a 29 kW array of 128 panels installed on a roof at Lotus’s UK headquarters. Set up over only two days using the company’s installation system, the array should meet three quarters of the power needs of a cutting-edge computerised racetrack demonstrator.

The installation follows an attention-grabbing installation of panels on the roofs of Lotus’s fleet of transporters. As a result, the team’s track-side hospitality facilities now furnish a striking demonstration of solar power’s potential to some of the industry’s most influential figures.

For Hill, solar power cannot be seen as the sole solution to the automotive industry’s power needs. Rather, it should provide ‘a pragmatic element in the power generation mix of automotive plants’.

‘As many plants operate 24 hours a day, the size of the installation determines if solar PV can provide day-time energy requirements and store excess energy for night shifts,’ he said.

‘The size of the plant roofs is a key factor, along with the local climate conditions. Secondly, as with all solar installations – if the weather is overcast impacting the collection of sunlight, then some energy will need to be sourced elsewhere.’

Carmakers Commit

An insight into the motor industry’s perspective on PV can be seen in Toyota Motor Corporation’s global concept for ‘sustainable plants’, in place since 2007. Under this initiative, the company commits firstly to cutting energy use, a process it sees as the fastest route to lower emissions.

 But increasing the use of renewable energies provides a ‘second pillar’ to the sustainable plant strategy, in the phrase of Steve Hope, general manager for environmental affairs and corporate citizenship at Toyota Motor Europe.

The company’s retailers in Europe already apply a welter of passive and active technologies, including solar PV, solar thermal, Canadian Well, solar gain control, green roof, landscaping and rainwater harvesting, he said.

In its European production facilities, Toyota has also considered all renewable technologies for its processes, including solar thermal, geothermal, wind, biomass and hydro. But the company’s two biggest renewable installations are both based on large-scale solar PV.

‘We have focused on considering projects in which Toyota’s participation has contributed to new/additional renewable capacity being brought to market rather than simple green energy purchasing contracts,’ said Hope.

At Burnaston in Derbyshire in the UK, Toyota Motor Manufacturing (TMUK) has installed 17,000 ground-mounted panels across 90,000 m2 of land. The project was completed by JPCS for British Gas New Energy in time to beat changes to the government’s feed-in tariffs (FiTs) in August 2011.

At Toyota Parts Centre Europe (TPCE) in Diest, Belgium, a rooftop farm of 12,800 thin-film solar panels installed in 2009 is aimed at meeting 15%-20% of the facility’s electricity needs. The 80,000 m2 array was financed, built and operated by Blue Planet Solar and has a peak power supply of 1.84 MW.

Hope emphasises that the two projects are designed to directly serve the company’s power needs, unlike projects at some automotive production sites where power is produced and used independently of the site’s owner.

‘Both large-scale projects are contained within the site boundary and are a result of a joint venture agreement with a specialist renewable energy supplier/installer, and both sites have contracts to consume all (or as much) of the electrical output within the site itself – that is, only surplus energy is returned onto the public network.’

Hope stresses that a host of factors would determine whether solar would be the preferred technology at any additional Toyota sites. These include the availability of renewable energies as well as considerations of the local environment, infrastructure, legal agreements, national policy and professional partners.

Capital expenditure and operating expenditure would also figure in the decision.

In his view, the automotive industry presents few specific challenges for PV projects. ‘The challenges are largely common with other industries – national planning/environment permits and energy policies, legal connection agreements, local infrastructure capability and constructing a project which can attract a suitable economic partnership.’

But he adds that the partnership concept can be ‘quite attractive/necessary’ as the energy supplier partner will generally have a longer-term approach to such investments than a typical manufacturing or trading company.

In terms of the opportunities, he highlights ‘the actual facilities that we own and operate – such as roof space or spare land – and the opportunity to introduce a known load profile to match the installation’.

‘However, even these are not unique opportunities as, for example, many logistics companies/shopping outlets etc have large sites that may be attractive for PV installations.’

Clearly, policies such as Toyota’s sustainable plants philosophy would seem to make such sites most likely to sprout solar arrays at automotive facilities. Not that either Hope or Hill see the sector as motivated by considerations of image.

‘I do not think that decisions to install solar are made on the basis of image over performance in the manufacturing industry,’ says Hill.

‘Though most cars today are powered by legacy oil infrastructure, they have become exceptionally energy efficient, even when compared to just a few years ago.’

In his view, the car industry’s reputation hinges on its vehicles’ environmental performance, not the technologies that power its factories.

‘The reason behind the success of solar in the automotive industry is that, as an energy-intensive industry, constant reduction of production costs is key. The use of solar is an economic and practical one.’

Piers Evans is Production Editor of Renewable Energy World magazine. 

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