WASHINGTON – Americans are hardly flocking to battery-powered electric cars. The allure of zero-emission driving and a $7,500 federal tax credit hasn’t quite overcome higher sticker prices and anxieties about recharging times and limits on traveling ranges.
BMW is hoping to buck that with help from its carbon-fiber plant in Moses Lake.
The German automaker is just a week away from delivering the keys to its first i3, the first mass-produced model built with lightweight, carbon-reinforced plastic. The all-electric i3’s passenger compartment is made of carbon fibers produced at BMW’s joint venture plant in Eastern Washington.
On Thursday, BMW put on an exhibit at a Washington, D.C., gallery to trumpet the i3’s green cred.
Promoting cleaner forms of transportation is a key part of President Barack Obama’s climate action plan. As part of that, the federal government has raised mandatory fuel-economy standards for passenger cars to a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 31.1 mpg this year.
Plugging in an electrical car costs much less than filling up at a gas station. Yet U.S. sales of Nissan Leaf and all other electric-vehicle models total about 45,000 a year. Ford sells more F-series trucks in a month.
BMW conceived the i3 from the start as an electrical vehicle for optimal design and technologies. Lured in part by lobbying by former Gov. Chris Gregoire and $2 million in state tax credits, BMW and SGL Group, a major German carbon-products company, jointly opened the SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers plant in Moses Lake in 2011.
Today, the 80 employees at the plant’s two production lines – the second of which began operating in August – can produce a total of 3,000 metric tons of carbon annually, said Kenn Sparks, a spokesman for BMW North America. A second plant is under construction on the 60-acre campus and is scheduled to open next year.
Producing carbon fiber consumes a lot of energy, and BMW and SGL were also drawn to Moses Lake by cheap hydropower from dams on the Columbia River.
Spools of carbon fiber from Moses Lake are shipped to BMW plants in Wackersdorf and Landshut, Germany, to be woven into fabric. The carbon fiber is molded into parts at the BMW plant in Leipzig, Germany, where the i3 is manufactured. Moses Lake also provides carbon fiber for the upcoming i8, a plug-in hybrid sports car that runs on both gasoline and battery power.
Carbon frames are half the weight of steel and one-third lighter than aluminum. The pounds are critical because the battery and electric drivetrain can weigh more than the combustion engine, fuel tanks and exhaust system they replace, said Manuel Sattig, project manager for the BMW i sub-brand.
Sattig said BMW is considering incorporating carbon fiber into its other models. If so, he said, the Moses Lake plant will have adequate capacity to meet the demand.
BMW would not disclose its production rate for the i3, which has a base price of $42,275. It had 10,000 preorders in Europe and will deliver the first i3 on Nov. 16, probably to a German customer. First deliveries in the United States are set for April.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has pushed for federal investments in biofuels and composite materials technology, made brief remarks at the event Thursday. She said BMW’s presence in Moses Lake attests to potential to generate more green jobs.
“We want to put a big banner in Washington state,” she said.