Keep on trucking: Volvo – in safe hands

Volvo’s truck plant in Ghent has become entirely carbon neutral with the help of a collection of renewable generation technologies coupled with hard-won conservation efforts. The reward is a world first, David Appleyard reports.

Volvo Trucks has three major plants in Europe at Tuve, near Göteborg and Umeå in Sweden, and in Ghent, Belgium. The three factories account for half the total production at Volvo Trucks and produce around 50,000 vehicles a year. Between 2001 and 2005, Volvo had already reduced the energy consumption per manufactured truck by a third, but in September 2005, the company adopted the radical decision that the Tuve production plant would be the world’s first carbon dioxide-neutral vehicle factory.

‘It actually all began with an unofficial competition between three of our factories – the Umeå and Tuve plants in Sweden and Ghent in Belgium,’ says Lars Mårtensson, Environmental Affairs director at Volvo Trucks.

The company had determined that by increasing the efficiency of energy usage and replacing fossil energy sources with wind and biofuels, all readily available and proven technologies, net carbon emissions could be eliminated.

Last year, the Tuve plant did indeed become the first such plant with a power purchase agreement that includes wind power and initially waste heat and thereafter bio-synthetic gas for heating. However, the process of gaining planning permission in Sweden is quite long and the company is still waiting for permission to set up wind turbines at the Tuve plant.

Nonetheless, repeating the same formula at Ghent and Umeå, Volvo plans to have all its major production plants carbon dioxide-neutral by 2008, when energy consumption per truck built is targeted to be 24% lower than it was in 2003.

This Enercon turbine is one of three 2 MW machines on the Ghent site

Claes Nilsson, President Europe Division of Volvo Trucks explains: ‘We are fully aware of the environmental problems we have in the world today and we’re working to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide in both fixed facilities and from vehicles. However, for practical and economic reasons it is simpler to make a factory carbon dioxide-free.’

Shortly after the decision to make Tuve carbon free, in February 2006 the company announced its decision to move ahead with the strategy at its assembly plant in Ghent with, among other measures, the installation of three wind turbines beside the plant along with a new on-site biomass-fired facility. The plant had previously relied mainly on natural gas for its heating.

The factory, which has 2400 employees, produced 30,400 vehicles in 2005, most for export to other markets throughout Europe. It is set to produce more than 40,000 vehicles in 2007, making it the Swedish group’s largest truck plant with a turnover of around €1777 million annually. In terms of traditional production processes, the plant’s activities directly and indirectly generated more than 11,000 tonnes of CO2 annually with 4020 tonnes emitted from on-site generation alone in 2005.

Ghent going

The project to make the entire plant carbon-neutral by the end of 2007 was conceived and carried out with Belgian utility company Electrabel, a subsidiary of SUEZ, as an early partner, beginning with feasibility studies. To execute the development, Volvo Europa Truck NV and Electrabel signed a long-term contract giving Electrabel the right to set up the three wind turbines, the maximum allowable on site, and to build a new biomass heating installation. Electrabel’s experience with both wind turbines and biomass projects was the decisive factor in Volvo’s choice to partner with it and the two have invested around E10 million on site.

The complete project has three main components, with biomass-fired boilers, wind turbines and hydroelectric power, which Electrabel also supplies through its 100% certified renewable AlpEnergy brand. The majority of this is produced by Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR), an Electrabel partner in France, which operates 19 hydroelectric power stations between Lake Geneva and the Rhône estuary with a combined capacity of 3 GW.

They also continue to work together on energy saving measures. For instance it was decided to undertake a thermographic survey of all buildings on the Volvo Europa Truck NV site which will form the basis for future projects. For new buildings or extensions, for instance, particular attention will be paid to energy loss and the company has been fitting ‘light lanes’ or large transparent panels in the roof, painting walls and ceilings in lighter colours so as to reflect natural light better and automatically adjusting the lighting level in the assembly line according to the ambient light.

Thanks to these and other initiatives, and based on key principles to reduce the overall energy consumption, cut CO2 emissions to zero and abandon the use of fossil fuels for heating, energy consumption was reduced by 23% between 2001 and 2006, while production rose by 33% over the same period.

Specific measures taken to cut CO2 emissions included replacing two gas-fired boilers, one of which was due for renewal, with a new thermal system fired by biomass pellets. This 5 MWth single boiler – the other boilers will be dismantled – covers 70% of the basic heating requirements of the plant. Using pellets made from sawdust supplied by local sawmills, it incorporates the latest technology and can be adapted if necessary to burn other types of biomass. The ash from the wood pellets represents less than 1% by mass and is currently being investigated to see if it can be processed into composting products.

In addition, a third gas-fired boiler was converted to run on bio-oil. This boiler meets the additional 30% of demand for heat in the winter, and when demand is very low at certain periods in summer it can be used as the sole heating source. Natural gas will only be used in emergencies and there is some discussion taking place over the source of bio-oil for the boiler, which is currently made from recycled frying oils and fats.

Volvo Europa Truck generates as much as possible of its own electricity from three wind turbines, each with a capacity of 2 MW, which cover half of the plant’s energy consumption. The turbines are Enercon E-82 multi-pole annular generator type with a 100 metre mast height and 40 metre blades. The output, a nominal 2 MW at 22 rpm – more or less at 11 metres/second wind speed – is fed into the power supply company’s grid. The wind turbines are subject to rules and guidelines and must be placed at least 40 metres from buildings, 140 metres from the nearest natural gas pipeline and the 300 metres from the closest residential property. Planning regulations and other requirements concerning noise, cast shadow, nature areas and bird migration paths also had to be met.

In addition, 150 photovoltaic modules of 200 Wp each are mounted in series on the roof of the new biomass heating plant. This gives a total installed peak capacity of 30 kW and 28 MWh/year, and the electricity produced can be used directly for starting the wood pellet boiler.

Furthermore, a trial is currently being carried out at the company to assess whether the hot water required for showers and wash basins can be produced by solar thermal boilers. The test installation consists of two collectors with a total surface area of 5 m2 and a 300 litre buffer tank placed so as to produce around 160 litres a day of sanitary hot water at 65°C.

‘The factory in Ghent reached its target first. And now it’s not just Umeå and Tuve which are on the way there – Ghent’s achievement has started a true carbon dioxide race among our other production facilities too,’ observes Mårtensson.

For example, while pressing ahead with the Ghent development, in March 2006 Volvo announced that its Umeå cab factory had signed an agreement with Umeå University and utility supplier Umeå Energi for a preliminary study on the development of a process for replacing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) with locally produced bio-synthetic gas. A gasification plant is planned for the Volvo Trucks cab plant, which churned out just over 51,000 cabs in 2005, for the production of environmentally optimized bio-synthetic gas. This technology, in which the forestry industry’s residual by-products are ground down and gasified in a flow reactor, was developed by Umeå University.

The next stage in the process of making the factory carbon dioxide-free is to eliminate all use of LPG in cab production, currently used in the paintshop’s drying process.

A greenback philosophy

Discussing the decision to go ahead with the carbon-free factory project, Mårtensson says that as a company with the environment as one of its core values, Volvo has a social role to play. ‘We must never forget that stocks of raw materials are limited, and so we must use them in such a way as to have sufficient reserves in future. Making efficient use of renewable sources of energy, such as wind power and biomass, forms one of the main challenges of the 21st century.’

This new biomass-fired boiler house has 30 kW of solar PV panels on the roof

However, perhaps surprisingly, Mårtensson also reports significant economic benefits: ‘Before we started this project we were convinced that carbon dioxide-free production would result in increased costs, a consequence we were prepared to accept,’ he says. Initially, the company had thought that the return on investment period would be of the order of five or 10 years. ‘However,’ says Mårtensson, ‘we can see already today that in the long-term we will, on the contrary, be saving money. Therefore, I can truly recommend other companies to consider similar measures.’ Indeed, current estimates indicate that the project will become economically positive within just one year.

With oil prices at record levels and showing no sign of falling, Volvo Trucks’ stated intention to double the use of carbon dioxide-free energy by 2010 seems to make good sense all round.

David Appleyard is Associate Editor of Renewable Energy World

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