MOSES LAKE, WA – While it’s being hailed as a wonder product for automakers that need to put their performance models on a diet, carbon fiber has its naysayers.

Critics charge the lightweight material’s oftentimes-long supply chain, with the source product usually originating in Japan, is anything but eco-friendly.

But BMW, the auto industry’s leading proponent of carbon fiber, looks at its models containing the material more holistically.

Klaus Draeger, BMW’s head of purchasing, acknowledges the i3 electric vehicle, for instance, does have a higher carbon footprint if one looks only at the elements it takes to bring the car to life.

“If you take together the battery, the carbon fiber, the aluminum and what is on the car, you start slightly worse than a conventional car,” he tells WardsAuto here during an event at BMW supplier SGL’s carbon-fiber plant.

“But by using much less energy during driving, the carbon emissions over the lifetime of an i3 is better than a conventional car…and if you drive the car during the lifespan with renewable energy it is actually much better,” says Draeger, who previously oversaw R&D of BMW’s i electrified models.

Not needing a paint shop for the i3 and i8, whose thermoplastic body panels are infused with color, is another way in which the i3 and i8 are greener than conventional automobiles, a BMW spokesman says.

The German automaker could source carbon fiber from anywhere in the world, Draeger acknowledges, but chose a location here, about three hours east of Seattle for two different green reasons.

Moses Lake is near the Columbia River, whose dams produce cleaner hydropower for the region.

But this electricity also has the benefit of being more affordable than German-made renewable energy, Draeger notes.

A 2013 fact sheet by the Port of Moses Lake cites an average industrial power rate of $0.03 cents per kWh, compared with $0.04-cent average for the state of Washington.

While Germany has one of the most extensive and admired renewable energy infrastructures in the world it comes at a high cost, largely due to taxation.

Those living in Berlin, for instance, paid as much as $0.30 per kWh in April, according to energy think tank VaasaETT, although industries usually enjoy a slightly lower rate than residential customers.

While German renewable energy is pricey, that hasn’t dissuaded BMW from assembling the i models in its home country.

The i3 and i8 both are built in Leipzig, and BMW is using renewable energy there, too.

Draeger says BMW has installed four wind turbines at the plant, and they provide more than 50% of the energy needed for the cars’ production.

Meanwhile, Draeger says the automaker plans to use all 9,000 tons (8,165 t) of carbon fiber annually set to come from SGL in Moses Lake. However, he isn’t unwilling to share.

“Our prognosis currently shows that we will need all this (that) we are producing here,” he says. “But, of course, if there were to be some overcapacity, we could think about (sales to other automakers) as well.”

For now BMW is mum on what models next will see carbon fiber used. The next-generation 7-Series has been reported to be a likely candidate. Draeger says the material is suitable for application in all segments in which BMW currently competes.

“I wouldn’t rule out (anything),” he says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com