BMW'S Spartanburg, SC, plant hasproduced more than 1.6 million vehicles since it opened 16 years ago, and a $750 million expansion boosts capacity from 160,000 units to 240,000 and reinforces the German auto maker's commitment to eco-friendly manufacturing.

Assembly of the all-new second-generation X3 cross/utility vehicle began Sept. 1, as production of the slow-selling first-generation X3 ended in Graz, Austria.

Current production in Spartanburg amounts to 1,000 vehicles per day, including nearly 450 X3s as of mid-February; a second 10-hour shift began a few months ago. Plant managers insist higher production levels will not denigrate the mission to conserve energy, reduce waste and recycle whenever possible.

For the past eight years, for example, half the energy necessary to power the sprawling complex has been generated by methane gas piped from 100 wells sunk into a landfill 9.5 miles (15.2 km) away.

In 2009, BMW spent $12 million to expand and improve its “Gas-to-Energy” program, which uses two high-efficiency gas turbine generators to produce 11,000 kW of electricity.

Besides generating electricity much more cheaply than purchasing it from the utility, the system also creates thermal energy to heat and chill water used throughout the air-conditioned factory. Annual energy savings amount to about $5 million.

BMW has 12 years left on its 20-year contract to use methane gas from the landfill. When the current pact expires, plant management likely will begin negotiating a new contract. The supply of gas at the landfill is expected to be plentiful for at least another 25 years.

The landfill regeneration program reduces carbon-dioxide emissions 92,000 tons (83,444 t) per year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks the plant No.7 among its top 20 on-site “Green Power Partners.”

BMW also produces liquid hydrogen on-site and stores it in a 15,000-gallon (56,775 L) tank at -400° F (-272° C). The hydrogen gas is transported to the assembly hall, where it is dispensed from six stations to fuel forklifts and other material-handling vehicles.

The auto maker estimates the fuel-cell project annually saves 1.8 million kWh of electricity that would have been used to charge a battery-powered fleet. The hydrogen-powered vehicles can be refueled in 90 seconds, which is faster than changing out batteries.

Another efficiency boost comes in the new paint shop, which uses BMW's Integrated Paint Process that skips the primer coat (eliminating the need for a primer oven) by integrating it with the topcoat. It saves 80 minutes overall.

The new paint shop generates 43% less carbon emissions, consumes 30% less energy and produces 7% fewer volatile organic compounds.

The IPP has not yet been applied to the old paint shop in Spartanburg but is expected this year, plant insiders say. BMW's other facilities globally are expected to follow.

Some 7,000 employees work at the Spartanburg facility, and the new assembly line has created 1,600 new jobs.

For the first four months of model year '11, X3 sales have totaled 2,015 units, according to Ward's data. In that period, the CUV has trailed by a wide margin its primary rivals, including the Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, Mercedes GLK and Lexus RX 350.

But now that production has ramped up, the X3 is gaining momentum. In the month of January, the CUV outsold the XC60, Infiniti EX and Acura RDX.


WARDSAUTO.COM

X3 Weak Link No Longer subscribers.wardsauto.com/ar/x3_weak_link_110127