Could Factories Ever Become Powered By 100% Renewable Energy?

a look inside tesla's gigafactoryFrom small plants to large, models for factories these days often involve eco-friendly measures. Possibly the world’s most famous factory, the Tesla Gigafactory (unveiled just a few weeks ago) is a large-scale implementation of sustainability. As the largest extant lithium-ion battery factory, the factory is expected to generate as much renewable energy as it needs to operate. As ComputerWorld documents, “using conservative estimates, the Gigafactory’s trifecta of renewable energy sources could generate more than 2,00MWh of renewable electricity daily, 20% more than it even needs.”

The factory will be shaped like a diamond so that it fits the environment and less dirt has to be removed to build it. CEO Elon Musksays that the factory is aligned on true north so that it will have the maximum amount of light for its solar panels: “This factory will produce its own energy as well. Through a combination of geothermal, wind, and solar, it will produce all the energy it needs. So it’ll be a self-contained factory.”

First of all, that’s amazing. It makes sense for a renewable energy factory to be plugged into a wind turbine farm, and to take advantage of as much renewable energy as possible. Since the spotlight is on the Gigafactory in a major way, this type of design could (and most likely will) influence the construction of other manufacturing plants in the future. Second, the push to design other factories to become more sustainable and run on renewable energy is already beginning. The title of the ComputerWorld article is “If Tesla’s Gigafactory can run on 100% renewable energy, why can’t others?”

Well, there are many reasons that factories cannot all be self-contained energy havens. Not all factories have a budget of billions of dollars and are located in the middle of a desert with five peak hours of sunlight per day. However, factories covered in solar panels or plugged into wind turbine farms may not be as far away as many advanced manufacturers think.

For one, solar panels have traditionally only been useful for manufacturers who live in, well, sunny areas. It’s a challenge to keep a factory running, but be deterred by a cloudy day. This might change as researchers figure out how to make solar panels that can produce satisfactory amounts of energy in cloud-prone areas. Just this week, Chinese researchers who found a way to leverage rainfall and create power from the same panel unveiled the first model of this type of panel. When clouds form, the solar cell converts to one that can leverage graphene (in rainfall) to create water (read more about the intricacies of this panel here). In other words, solar panels aren’t simply for the sunshine states any longer.

The call for factories to become renewable will most likely be poignant for industries that use extraordinary amounts of energy. In Europe, the dairy industry is under the spotlight for their average annual input of 18,400 GWh each year (enough to power Lithuania’s 1.35 million households for the year). Projects like SUSMILK, which is funded by the EU, are currently testing energy efficient and renewable technologies in production facilities across Europe: “We see a lot of potential for improvements by using technology that can easily fit into the dairy industry,” said Dr. Christoph Glasner, who is also the project manager of SUSMILK.

We’re quite a long way from seeing factories entirely powered by renewable energy, like the Gigafactory, but there’s no doubt that we’re headed in that direction. As advancements begin to overcome the obstacles of being powered by anything but fossil fuels, it may become less expensive and more doable for a variety of advanced manufacturers. If you’re incorporating sustainability into your production processes at all, you’re on the right track.

Questions? Comments? Want to learn more about this issue, the Gigafactory, or sustainability in advanced manufacturing? Leave a comment in the section below, any time, and we’d be happy to help.

photo credit: I felt like I was in a Transformers movie set via photopin (license)

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