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Ford, GM, Nissan shift water conservation into next gear

Auto manufacturers adjust processes, particularly paint applications, to cut consumption up to 37 percent over the past five years.

For the first four years of its existence, the Department of Energy’s Better Plants program focused almost exclusively on encouraging industrial manufacturers to reduce energy intensity by an ambitious 25 percent. Many are recording annual average improvements of 2.1 percent, according to the DoE’s latest progress report (PDF) issued in September.

For the past 12 months, however, almost two dozen of the program’s 157 participating companies have added water conservation measures to their agenda. Cumulatively speaking, these organizations have saved more than 357 million gallons — roughly the amount of water needed to fill 540 Olympic swimming pools or power 20 million showers.

Some of the most striking results come from the three high-profile automotive companies that decided to give the pilot a try: Ford; General Motors; and Nissan. Here are the water reduction results published by this trio, in that same order: 37 percent (over five years), 11.7 percent (over four years), and 16.1 percent (over one year).

"Their participation speaks to how important this program is," said Andre de Fontaine, lead manager for the Better Plants initiative. "The sector does use a lot of water, and the water that they do use is critical, especially in the paint systems."

Andy Hobbs, director of the environmental quality office at Ford, said his company studied water-conservation strategies at 23 U.S. facilities (it has 78 plants worldwide). Ford has considered water to be a "critical commodity" for some time. Its overall reduction goal calls for cuts of 30 percent per vehicle by the end of 2015.

Historically, it has been tough to justify some savings measures financially. Now, even with the substantial reduction the company has managed over the past four years, actual costs of water have stayed flat, Hobbs said.

"That shows the huge increase in rates that are occurring," he said.

Where the rubber meets the road 

Ford has managed its impressive reductions through countless of process adjustments, including cutting water usage in factory cooling towers and introducing regular assessments of availability and quality.

Many practices used to cut energy intensity also helped its water story. The biggest impact came from changes in three specific areas:

  1. Paint application: Applying finishes to vehicles using traditional processes requires an enormous amount of water, with mains circulating around the clock. Ford now completes this process with three coats that are applied "wet on wet." That reduces both time and the amount of water needed.
  2. Machining process updates: Ford has embraced minimum quantity lubrication systems for its metalworking processes. This decreases water usage for this component of the production process by 50 percent. For a typical production line, that amounts to about 280,000 gallons of water annually.
  3. Water reuse: Where possible, the automaker is using gray or non-potable water for processes. "We are recycling the water best as we can," Hobbs said.

These changes weren’t made lightly. Ford uses a central staff to research, verify and roll out modifications of this magnitude — prioritizing facilities where they will make the biggest difference.

Similar journeys for GM, Nissan

According to the DoE data, Nissan is also addressing paint processes. In addition, it has added screening technologies to the facilities used for leak tests on engines and other parts. The water is captured and reused in other parts of its product line.

The total amount of water saved by Nissan from 2013 to 2014 was 140,200 gallons.

The sector does use a lot of water, and the water that they do use is critical, especially in the paint systems.

GM talks up many of the same measures as Nissan and Ford. It already had reduced water consumption substantially before joining the Better Plants pilot. Between 2005 and 2010, it managed reductions of 32 percent per vehicle produced. Over the past four years, it has cut that amount by 11 percent. The overage goal is a 15 percent water-intensity reduction by 2020.

What’s next? For a start, the DoE plans to publish a white paper detailing some best practices used by its water-savings pioneers. The agency is also working on more specific ways to measure baseline water consumption levels. Current metrics tend to focus only on water purchased from utilities and often don’t include a manufacturer’s consumption of groundwater, de Fontaine said.

"There’s definitely still room for improvement,” he said.

That’s not an excuse for inaction, however. At the next Better Plants summit next spring, the DoE plans to start convincing more companies to set water-savings targets for their industrial operations, de Fontaine said.

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