Fall Semester Overview of the Nissan Team Project on Industrial Energy Efficiency

January 2, 2014

By Rica Zhang, Robinson Ford, Justin Ong, and Jake Reeder

The Industrial Energy Efficiency in Automotive Manufacturing Project is comprised of three teams of five students working in the area of energy management in this major US manufacturing sector.  Each team has been assigned a company and mentor from that company to define and implement a project around energy management that is directly relevant to the company.  This is summary of the Nissan team’s project ideas and some individual student reflections on the fall semester.


Our team has been working with our Nissan company mentor, Richard Russell – an energy engineer, to scope out projects that are at the nexus of our skills and Nissan’s needs. From these conversations, three projects have emerged: a solar photovoltaic analysis, a geothermal energy analysis, and a statistical model which estimates energy consumption in Nissan’s manufacturing plants.

As part of Nissan’s Company-wide Sustainability Plan, the company is aiming to reduce its carbon emissions within its manufacturing processes 20% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. In order to meet these ambitious goals, Nissan has historically focused on energy efficiency measures because the lion’s share of its carbon emissions is associated with its energy consumption. By optimizing its manufacturing processes and modernizing equipment, Nissan has experienced early success and is on pace to meet its reduction targets. Looking toward the future, however, Nissan recognizes that energy efficiency alone cannot be the only solution—there simply are not enough gains to be made to reduce energy use (and thus CO2 emissions) by 80%. Therefore, Nissan is looking to source its energy from low carbon alternatives relative to the grid.  The Bass Connection project team is looking at three areas.

Solar PV Analysis

Aside from recognizing that their energy sources will need to change in the future to meet its carbon reduction goals, Nissan has conducted very little solar research to date. For example, how much will solar cost in the future relative to the conventional grid? What are the potential carbon reductions from implementing a specific project?

We anticipate that the answers to these questions will be dependent on location due to varying grid mixes, government policies, and received insolation. Therefore, Richard has asked our team to investigate these questions and perform preliminary analyses for their plant in Smyrna, TN and headquarters building in Franklin, TN.

Geothermal Analysis

Our team has also been tasked with researching the potential of using geothermal energy for electricity production within Nissan’s Canton, MS plant. Although geothermal for electricity production for industrial applications is rare, Richard believes potential exists on the Canton site. Many abandoned natural gas and oil wells exist near the Canton facility that extend more than a mile and a half beneath the Earth’s surface. Richard wants to examine the feasibility of repurposing these wells for geothermal electricity generation. If possible, it would significantly reduce costs because drilling is typically a third of total geothermal costs.

Richard has asked our team to make a recommendation if the geothermal activity and landscape in Canton is suitable to produce geothermal electricity. As part of our analysis, we are expected to conduct a literature review with a focus on the physical requirements of a geothermal plant– with a lesser emphasis on cost factors.

Statistical Model Revision

Nissan’s current statistical models which estimate energy usage are currently conducted at the plant level and using monthly data. We propose to build on Nissan’s model by calculating energy usage at the shop level (e.g. paint booth, assembly, etc.) with much more detailed daily or weekly data, then sum energy usage in each shop to estimate total plant energy usage.


Personal Student Reflections

“Before working with BASS connections, I didn’t have any experience in energy research. I had always thought about energy use and efficiency in terms of household energy use and efficiency. In reading the reports about energy use in the motor industry, I came to realize that increasing energy efficiency in motor vehicle manufacturing is also very important because it could have a big impact since so much energy is used in the production of motor vehicles.

In the Spring I look forward to learning more about solar energy while doing research for Nissan. I will be reviewing literature to forecast solar prices in the future and making a model to determine the cost of installing solar panels. I hope to learn more about how the solar energy industry works as well as learn more about the different ways of investing in solar energy. Also I plan to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy as an energy source with the amount of technology we have available right now.”

–          Rica Zhang


“Whenever I initially saw the data analysis that Nissan had already conducted on its energy usage, I was slightly surprised that it was not more in depth. This level of surprise increased when I found out that they had access to daily and weekly energy data, but still used the 12-month model that we were presented with. It makes sense that Nissan’s management pitched a new statistical analysis method as a task for the Bass Connections team to tackle, as it seems like a relatively approachable problem. Hopefully for the next semester we can properly address this statistical model, and develop a superior method of tracking and measuring energy usage.

Initially upon meeting with Nissan, we were told that the desired payback period for any developments was approximately three years. For an undergraduate not involved in industry, this was quite surprising. I was more used to thinking on longer timescales, such as decades that it might take the installation of residential solar panels on a house to pay for themselves. According to Professor Boyd, this three years is actually somewhat generous for the automotive industry.

Entering into this project, I was not expecting geothermal energy to be a possibility for Nissan given its southern plant locations. The information that the Canton, MS plant was located above an area of geothermal activity (the Jackson Dome) allows this course of action to be included in any evaluations of the sites potential for renewable energy. As a result of its location, the possibility of Canton harvesting geothermal energy will be researched.”

–          Robinson Ford


“Over the past two months, I’ve been on a student team working with Nissan to investigate renewable energy and energy efficiency opportunities. Something that surprised me was Nissan’s manufacturing unit has an ambitious carbon reduction goal: 80% reductions by 2050 (using 2005 as a baseline). For perspective, the liberal state of California has the same goal– but using 1990 emissions as the baseline.  However, what surprised me even more is that Nissan is not actively promoting the goal (despite its likely appeal to buyers of the eco-friendly Nissan Leaf).

In fact, after hearing of the goal from our Nissan advisor, it took a bit of independent research to find out more details. Why? The goal was tucked away within the text of an inconspicuous corporate sustainability document on their website.

It might seem admirable that Nissan, a company in the extremely competitive auto-industry, would voluntarily submit itself to such stringent environmental standards. However, the carbon reduction goal has actually resulted in higher profits—not costs.  The standard has driven its energy engineers to proactively identify and reduce inefficiencies in its conventional manufacturing processes. This seems to contradict the common argument against national carbon legislation—that US companies will become less competitive to other countries. In Nissan’s case, policy has spurred innovation.”

–          Justin Ong


“At this point, our team has been digging into Nissan and their manufacturing energy use for a few months. And after all that we’ve discovered, I still think that I’m most surprised by what we learned in the first week: that the largest consumer of energy in an assembly plant is the paint plant. This energy intensive process takes place in what is effectively a 50,000 square-foot oven. At the company’s Smyrna, TN plant, each chassis spends about five hours in the paint plant before moving the next stage of the assembly process.

Although Nissan has recently made some upgrades to the paint plant (and other factory processes) to make better use of energy and financial resources, my team hopes that the work we’ll do this spring can help the company guide new investments and measure any additional savings achieved. We plan to spend time linking the company’s natural gas and electricity use to both production levels and external weather data on a day-by-day level. We’re also excited to trek out to Smyrna, TN to see the manufacturing process in action.”

–          Jake Reeder