MOSES LAKE, Wash. – German carmaker BMW AG and a European carbon manufacturing company celebrated the opening of a new plant to produce carbon fibers for the automotive industry on Thursday.
Drawn to the region by cheap hydropower and Washington state’s renewable energy efforts, the SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers plant could become the largest facility of its kind in the world because of strong demand for the composites.
The plant is a $100 million partnership of BMW and SGL Group, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of carbon-based products.
“We just might be witnessing a piece of industrial history that is being made here,” SGL Group CEO Robert Koehler said.
Depending on their application, carbon fibers can be lighter, stronger and far more durable than many metals. Boeing Co.’s new 787 jetliner is mostly made out of the material, and the composites – long a force in some car racing circuits – are increasingly being used in the commercial automotive industry.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire lobbied hard for the plant to be built in her state, where cheap hydropower from central Washington’s Columbia River dams is drawing more high-tech companies and manufacturers to the region.
“We share the same values,” she said. “We share the value of clean energy for tomorrow. That’s the future. That’s where jobs are.”
Norbert Reithofer, BMW chairman, acknowledged that Washington’s cheap power from renewable resources and its renewable energy incentives were factors in the decision to locate in Moses Lake.
“This is very important to us,” he said. “At the BMW Group, we are thinking about sustainable mobility for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. We believe environmental responsibility extends beyond the car itself to the entire value chain. Because of this, sustainable vehicle production is becoming more and more important.”
The plant currently employs about 80 people, but expansions are planned.
The new high-tech economy is a change for Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County, an area long reliant on agriculture as its economic driver. Recent entries to the local economy alongside potato and onion fields include a facility to make solar cell materials and several electricity-intensive computer server farms.