Automakers have been catching a lot of flak lately for their continued production of big, gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs, but they have made spectacular improvements in downsizing and improving energy efficiency in one totally un-sung area: manufacturing.

They deserve credit for the strides they are making -- and not just from environmentalists who are always eager to trash the auto industry’s most profitable products. Automakers deserve official credits from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that can be used to offset inevitable legislation regarding the fuel economy and emissions of light trucks.

Environmentalists hate the idea of giving “credits” for anything, but lets face it, the environment and our lungs don’t know the difference between emissions from so-called stationary sources like power plants and mobile sources such as your neighbor’s Suburban. Such a deal could be a good compromise, allowing consumers to continue to buy the vehicles they want while still encouraging automakers to reduce the environmental impact of their prodigious manufacturing operations.

And by the way, only about one-third of man-made global warming gasses come from cars and trucks. The other two-thirds come from stationary sources.

Industry executives haven’t pushed this idea far in Washington, but they should.

The new assembly plants being built today -- from Valenciennes, France, to Lansing, MI, -- are a fraction of the size of those built 10 or 20 years ago, and produce far less waste and global warming gasses. Even old plants have made huge improvements in the amount of energy they use and pollution they emit.

Why the disconnect between products and the factories that build them? Simple: Automakers make most of their profits from big gas-guzzlers, and despite government-inspired disincentives and concerns over rising fuel prices, consumer demand remains strong. It seems topsy-turvy that if the government wants to penalize excess it doesn’t also reward manufacturers for making smaller, more energy efficient factories.

Ever since Henry Ford started mass-producing cars, automakers have tried to control costs by managing energy use.

Campaigns to reduce energy consumption by installing more efficient lighting and minimizing leaks in compressed air systems always have been high priorities, considering that the utility bills of a large automotive assembly plant can run from $10 million to $50 million per year -- about 70% of which is electricity.

General Motors Corp. brags that it reduced energy consumption by 18% at its North American facilities since 1995 and promises further improvements next year.

Although he can’t give a company-wide figure, Chief Environmental Officer Denny Minano says GM saved $15 million annually through energy reduction and recycling efforts at just one assembly plant in Orion, Township, MI.

To put it in perspective, in 1996, a global energy conservation campaign by GM reportedly saved enough electricity to supply 750,000 households for a month.

Now, with energy prices rising and manufacturing cost pressures increasing, the efficiency push has become especially crucial, and a new generation of auto plants is bursting on the scene that promise to rewrite the rules regarding not only flexibility and labor productivity, but in energy efficiency and low emissions as well.

The new Toyota Motor Corp. plant in Valenciennes, France, can produce 180,000 units per year and incorporates major metal stamping and plastic molding operations, yet it has less floor space than any other Toyota plant of similar capacity. “Being small optimizes the heating and energy use,” says a spokesman.

In Japan, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has a stated goal of putting in place a “green” manufacturing system by 2003.

There are many others, from a Volkswagen AG luxury car plant in Dresden, Germany, to a flurry of new GM plants in locations from Poland to Brazil. They all are a fraction of the size of traditional assembly plants, use a fraction of the energy, while still producing the same amount of vehicles.

Some of these new facilities, such as Ford Motor Co.’s $2 billion redevelopment of its famous Rouge Complex in Dearborn, MI, will be green literally, as well as figuratively.

Its roof will be covered with living ground cover. Although it will require stronger support pillars, the new roof is expected to significantly reduce cooling and heating loads. Thirty-five huge skylights will reduce the need for artificial lighting during the day.

So-called “Green screens,” trellises for flowering vines and other plants will shade and help cool the Rouge Office Building. Renewable energy sources such as solar cells and fuel cells are included in the project. For example, fuel cells will provide power for some computer systems.

A proposed $100 million Rolls-Royce plant in southern England will be built with similar, innovative concepts. It will be built half underground and will have a “living” moss roof.

Granted, many of these changes promise to save big bucks and aren’t altruistic, but will the results be any less beneficial? Are the only good environmental improvements the ones that cost jobs and batter a company’s bottom line?

William McDonough, the renowned eco-architect who is re-creating the Ford Rouge complex, already has proven through numerous successful designs that environmentalism and capitalism can successfully coexist, now its time for Washington to start learning. o