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We can see that what we’re doing is good for the environment, and also that it leads to better production economy for us.” –Anders Olausson, plant director for Volvo Trucks’ facility in Umeå, Sweden

It’s interesting to note that global truck manufacturers aren’t just looking at ways to just increase the energy efficiency and lessen the environmental of their vehicles; they are trying to do the same thing with their factories as well.

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For example, take Paccar’s Kenworth Truck Co. manufacturing facilities in Chillicothe, Ohio, and Renton, WA: both recently earned ISO 14001:2004 certification for effective environmental management systems established to help build Class 8 trucks in what’s euphemistically called “an environmentally sustainable manner.”

Kenworth’s Chillicothe plant also snagged a Global Six Sigma award last year for its efforts to reduce waste within the factory’s paint department. The end result of that effort? The elimination of 21,000 gallons of paint waste from the landfill per year, while simultaneously cutting volatile organic compound emissions by more than 15 tons annually.

Now, however, Sweden’s AB Volvo – parent company of Volvo Trucks North America – is taking another big stride in OEM efforts to not only make their plants “greener” but also power them with alternative sources of energy (read as: niether petroleum nor coal) while making them more energy efficient as well.

Volvo is gradually replacing the propane gas used to power its cab factory in Umeå, Sweden, with dimethyl ether or “DME” because it’s relatively cheap and produces little pollution from combustion. DME is also getting serious attention from Volvo as an alternative to diesel fuel for its commercial trucks sold in Europe, for though DME’s energy density is lower than diesel, the overall engine thermal efficiency is the same or higher.

As a liquefied gas like propane, that becomes liquid under low pressure of 60 psi (pounds per square inch), DME is in many ways considered an ideal diesel fuel replacement because it has very high oxygen content – 35% by weight – and no carbon-carbon bonds, meaning it cannot produce soot particulates or black smoke.

[You can view more information Volvo’s DME vehicle testing efforts below.]

It’s also interesting to note that DME is calculated to cost less than diesel on an equal energy basis, with 1.8 gallons of DME costing less than one gallon of diesel, assuming $70 per barrel or higher oil prices.

Back at the Umeå plant, some 90% of the factory’s energy consumption is from renewable sources. As of last year, out of the 106 GWh (gigawatt hours) of energy the factory consumed, only 13% still consisted of propane – the only fossil fuel used in the plant. Today, the propane used for the painting ovens is being replaced with district heating fueled by DME – and all told, that’s helped cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the plant by 8,000 tonnes a year.

[That reduction in “greenhouse gas” emissions may become crucial in the near future, as the European Union – like the U.S. – is contemplating caps on CO2 emissions.]

The rest of the plant’s electrical power, by the way, is produced locally and is renewable – as it comes from hydropower generated by the nearby Ume River. That helps the plant “recycle” energy to the tune of 80 GWh per year – done, in part by using hydropower but also (and I for one think this is really cool -- no pun intended) by tapping into an ice-cold underground river to cool production machinery.

This underground ice river maintains a constant cold temperature in summer or winter and its icy water is pumped via a two-kilometer long pipe into the factory, replacing the need for artificial refrigeration agents as Freon. The biggest consumer of the river’s cooling water, however, is the dehumidification of the air that is fed to the paint-boxes in the factory’s paint shop.

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All told, the cooling effect of this underground ice water corresponds to 3,000 kilowatts of energy – not too shabby, if you ask me, for river water!

In terms of the big picture at the Umeå factory, energy consumption at the facility decreased by 30% per manufactured cab over the past decade, while, at the same time, there’s been a record increase in production volumes to 62,000 cabs a year, with a maximum of 90,000 cabs possible on an annual basis when running a full three shifts.

I think the lesson to be learned from all of this is while there are planet of environmental benefits to be gained from what Volvo is doing at its Umeå factory – by next year, for example, they expect it to be a “CO2 neutral” facility – there’s a tremendous amount of money being saved as well; money that isn’t being spent on petroleum imported from the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter.

It’s pretty sharp thinking that, hopefully, can be deployed in other factories around the world – tweaked here and there to handle differences in available resources, geographic location, etc. It just goes to show that there a lot more options available in terms of energy generation that bring environmental benefits and costs savings with them that many of us might not have thought possible.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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