All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

At the Volkswagen factory in Dresden (clean and transparent)

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The Gläserne Manufaktur, a transparent auto plant

The Gläserne Manufaktur, the fully transparent Volswagen plant in Dresden

Life is full of ironies. Visiting a city that is a gem of baroque architecture, after finishing a bicycle trip, Dinah and I went to visit…an ultra-modern car factory.

Weird, eh? It gets worse. We couldn’t even get a tour; there are 20-people tours every hour, but they must be booked way in advance. In fact, the VW factory it is one of the more popular sites on TripAdvisor for Dresden, and has been voted one of the world’s “25 most beautiful factories“.

Don’t worry about our sanity: we also did visit the famous Church of our Lady and the Augustinum. But I was keen on the factory, because it’s unique.

It’s fully transparent, for one thing. The assembly line for luxury Phaetons and Bentleys – that’s what the factory is – winds in a descending spiral encased in glass. Visitors see the cars gradually take shape (and thankfully visible even from the outside). Buyers can follow their future car floor by floor, if they wish.

The original appeal, for me, had to do with urban planning. Bringing industrial jobs to the centre of a city is always a challenge, but it seemed VW was up to the task. They had selected an assembly line – a process relatively free of pollution and noise – to bring jobs to the heart of former East Germany. But instead of a regular assembly line, they opted for a spectacular, fully transparent building, which continues to do wonders for them in terms of PR and free advertising. But there’s much more to the plant than good PR.

Standing in front of the factory, on a bridge above a stormwater detention pond

Standing in front of the factory, on a bridge above a stormwater detention pond

Dinah first noticed what a pleasant work environment the plant is. There’s no substitute for natural light, and natural ventilation, when working indoors. That means workers who are happier and more productive, a far cry from the old DDR. VW boasts of involving its employees in decision making when it comes to improving assembly line efficiency; I see no reason to doubt that (as of 2014,VW had propelled itself to number two among world car makers, so maybe there’s something about proof and pudding…).

Natural light and ventilation also mean energy savings for a building, at least a well designed one, which this one is. But the environmental aspects of the building don’t stop there. There are speakers chirping bird sounds outdoor (I was wondering what that was, as I couldn’t see the birds). The bird songs are designed to fool real birds into thinking the site is already occupied – so that they don’t crash into the windows, always an issue with glass buildings. And the outdoor lighting is also designed to “operate in a yellow spectral range that does not disturb insects in the nearby Botanical Gardens.” An auto plant that looks after the birds and the bees, who knew!

Special care was also taken to ensure good water management. Compared to the previous site use, the impervious (sealed) area was reduced from 6.7 to 4.8 hectares. This opened up space to plant 350 trees, as well as ponds that can store excess storm water and recharge groundwater.

(Stormwater management is always a concern in Dresden, as everywhere along the Elbe. During the massive flood of 2002, the factory atrium served as a venue for Carmen, since the baroque opera house was flooded and inaccessible.)

One of the problems with a downtown factory is supply. No-one welcomes a continuous stream of rumbling trucks. But this is where a well-established downtown provides an advantage in terms of transportation. Dresden has an extensive network of streetcars. So with a bit of ingenuity, some tramways were converted to goods transport, which can be done without disrupting transit passengers, impeding traffic, or creating unbearable noise on the cobblestone streets.

A supply tramway

A supply tramway

I wouldn’t have known about any of this, but missing out on the tour forced to do my own research (lack of organisation pays off sometimes). Dresden was lovely, don’t get me wrong; but sometimes it’s the absence of things that make the biggest impression. No smoke, no noise from a factory that churns twenty cars a day. Wow.

Doing that research got me on to VW’s site, looking at the company’s environmental statement. The company has pledged to reduce its footprint by 25% by 2018. That’s 25% less water, solvent, and energy use, less wastes and CO2. And then there’s this: “92 g CO2/km by 2020; VW group is backing the European emissions target”. Now that’s impressive, considering that this is a company that makes Audis and Porsches. A North American company would have threatened a law-suit, would have denounced the government’s directive as “job-killer”. Not here. Is Volkswagen merely playing coy?

A factory that does pollute or disrupt downtown life? Yes. A car company that is making progress towards environmental sustainability? Maybe. Here are a couple of quotes from the report.

In June 2013, Audi became the world’s first vehicle manufacturer to open its own power-to-gas plant – in Werlte, Germany. This project presents a solution to one of the big challenges facing Germany’s“energy transition”, by offering a way of storing renewable electricity independently of where it is generated, in large quantities and over long periods. The plant first of all splits water into its component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen is then reacted with waste CO2 from a biogas plant to produce synthetic methane – Audi e-gas. This gas… is fed into the natural gas grid and distributed to CNG filling stations. The plant began supplying Audi e-gas to the grid in late 2013. Annual production of the Audi facility is expected to be in the region of 1,000 t of e-gas, absorbing 2,800 t of CO2 in the process. The amount of e-gas produced in Werlte would enable 1,500 Audi A3 sportback g-tron• models to travel 15,000 km a year in virtually carbon-neutral style.

“SEAT a l Sol”, current ly the world’s largest photovoltaic plant in the automotive sector, came on stream in November 2013. The plant comprises 52,827 solar panels with a ma ximum rated output of 10.6 MW, and covers an area of 276,000 m² on the roofs of six ha lls and four storage areas for finished vehicles. [Prior to that], in January 2013 the Volkswagen brand brought on stream what was at the time the world’s largest solar power plant. The Volkswagen Chattanooga Solar Park generates a peak output of 9.5 MW and it remains the largest solar power plant operated by an automaker in the USA. Its approximately 33,600 solar panels are expected to yield around 13,100 MWh per annum, which would cover 13% of Chattanooga’s electricity requirements at full production capacity.

Then again, there’s this, from Wired: “The EPA is accusing Volkswagen of illegally using software to cheat emissions standards, allowing the German automaker to sell half a million cars that produce nitrogen oxide, which creates smog, at up to 40 times the legal limit.”  Hmm.


Written by enviropaul

September 19, 2015 at 12:50 am

One Response

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  1. […] But Volkswagen? The cool car? The love bug? The rebellious, hippie, birkenstock granola car? Say it ain’t so! The sense of betrayal is palpable out there – just look at Greenpeace France’s view of it, above. Volkswagen’s counter-culture image was forged in the sixties, and we’ve been saddled with it since. But the company now is the establishment: the biggest car maker in the world, with a stable that includes Bentleys and Audis. Still, what transpired this week comes as a shock.  Especially from a company with a strong, public environmental commitment. […]

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