SMYRNA, Tenn. (AP) -- In another cost-cutting move that also makes its car and truck production a little greener, Nissan North America said Tuesday it will use methanol fuel cells on some vehicles used to haul parts to assembly lines, starting at its plant in central Tennessee.
Executives at the plant near Nashville and the CEO of methanol fuel cell provider, Oorja (Or-jah) Protonics of Fremont, Calif., said Nissan was the first automaker to make a commercial switch to the power cells that convert chemical energy in methanol into electrical energy without any combustion.
Nissan is cutting its electric bill and carbon dioxide emissions by making the switch to methanol fuel cells mounted on "tugs," which pull trains of dollies loaded with parts.
Nissan material handling manager Mark Sorgi (Sor-jee) said the new OorjaPac system will power 60 of the 4,400-pound "tugs," eliminating more than 70 electric battery chargers that use almost 540,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. The net savings: $225,000 a year.
The switch by Oct. 1 to an alternative fuel derived from sources such as wood, grass, landfills, natural gas and coal also ends the process of switching out the 2,000-pound batteries for recharging and frees up about a half-dozen employees for other jobs.
"We are going to see how well the program works here before expanding to the other plants," Sorgi said.
Sorgi said Nissan is leasing the equipment. He declined to discuss the financial details.
The switch also eliminates more than 300 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
He said the methanol fuel cells save "almost 35 hours a day that were spent by employees, changing out batteries. There is no changing out of low or dead batteries, which involves a battery technician and 15 to 20 minutes. Now the tug driver can refill the fuel cell in less than one minute and they're on their way."
Oorja CEO and founder Sanjiv Malhotra said in a telephone interview that his company was also providing the methanol.
He said the fuel cells will eventually power fork lifts and other heavy equipment. "That is right around the corner," he said.
Nissan said the 5.4 million square foot Smyrna plant with some 4,000 employees has increased its energy efficiency by up to 32 percent since 2005. Changes include turning off and combining equipment such as paint booths at its plants in Smyrna, Decherd and Canton, Miss. is saving $11.5 million annually, Nissan spokesman Steve Parrett said.