Meet America's Grid-Neutral Honda Dealer

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 07, 2015

The first thing you notice at Rossi Honda in Vineyard, New Jersey (not far from Atlantic City) is the car port/canopies that cover the neat rows of cars. It turns out they do double duty, protecting the dealership’s assets and also generating solar power. A lot of it. Those canopies house a 900-panel, 223-kilowatt solar array, which—when combined with other energy saving innovations—is enough to make the facility the country’s first “grid-neutral” dealership.

Those carports double as powerful solar arrays. The dealership is grid neutral. (Rossi Honda)Over the system’s 25-year life, it will save 10 million pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) and, as a rather big extra incentive, provide $2 million in energy savings for Ron Rossi, the owner. "I produce more electricity than I consume," Rossi said. The solar canopies are conversation starters, said Rossi, who put a monitor showing the panels' output in the service area waiting room. "People thank me for doing this all the time," he said. "The important thing is not necessarily to sell a car, but to engage people with the idea."

It's not necessary to be a bleeding-heart energy liberal to invest in solar. Rossi shared some hard-edged math with me. The panels cost $1.28 million, and he paid upfront--but federal rules in place then got him a 30 percent discount. "So $900,000--- was the actual cost, but it was reduced to $500,000 by the tax savings," he said. "Now, my electricity savings are $130,000 per year, so it's only a four to five-year payback."

Rossi Honda: The panels pay for themselves within five years. (Rossi Honda)Rossi’s dealership won a platinum environmental leadership award from Honda management, which also supplied a green team to audit the facility to locate more energy savings. Just switching the big parking lot lights to LEDs saved $12,000 a year (with a 2.5-year payback). "I'm talking about this with you not to brag about what I've done, but to have some influence over the 17,500 other car dealerships in the U.S. Can you imagine the carbon savings if they all went grid-neutral?"

It’s not just dealerships. Honda’s parts distribution center in Windsor Locks, Connecticut just added a huge one-megawatt rooftop solar array, with 5,000 photovoltaic panels. That installation will produce 1.4 gigawatt-hours annually, more than half the site’s needs, and also offset 576 tons of CO2 each year.

Honda builds cars in Marysville, Ohio, and has since Ronald Reagan was presidential timber. The first Accord rolled off the assembly line in 1982. Back then, auto plants were dirty, smelly and clanging, and the only thing green was the coveralls on the workers.

Honda rolls out that first Accord in 1982. (American Honda photo)But Ryan Harty, manager of the environmental business office at American Honda, cites a philosophy of “continuous improvement” that is greening the car-making business one step at a time. The company's latest initiative is called Green Path, and it's aimed at reducing total lifecycle environmental impact. The company also has a goal of “nil to landfill,” i.e., zero waste, at all Honda’s manufacturing plants. A plant in Lincoln, Alabama was zero waste in 2001, when it opened, and another in Greensburg, Indiana at the start of production in 2008. In 10 years, Honda went from producing 62.8 pounds of industrial waste to 1.8 pounds and counting. Here's more on Green Path:

Auto body painting can be as much as 60 percent of an auto plant’s total energy use. When I last visited Volkswagen’s new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, only a few years ago, the company had just put in a new painting process that recaptured sludge from the process (previously disposed of as hazardous waste) to reuse at a nearby cement kiln.

Now Honda is going that one better by eliminating the production of paint sludge in the first place. The new “dry-booth” technology, capable of spraying 229,000 cars annually, will be in place by the end of 2017.  It uses limestone dust instead of water to capture overspray, and eliminates the need for two million gallons of water annually. At Honda, the old system produced 255 tons of sludge annually; the new system, none. CO2 emissions should also be down by 12,000 metric tons.

An even bigger one-megawatt solar array at Honda's parts distributorship in Connecticut. (American Honda photo)There are a two different ways of measuring how “green” an automaker is—first is the emissions and fuel economy of the actual cars (easy enough to measure) and the second is a complete lifecycle analysis that also includes manufacturing and end-of-life disposal.

Most people never look inside those factory doors, so investments in the manufacturing process deserve to get some attention. Measured in that lifecycle way by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Honda was the greenest automaker in the U.S. for 14 years, finally being dethroned by Hyundai (which is getting heavily into hybrids) last year.  

In case you were wondering, other good results were obtained by Toyota (third), Nissan (fourth) and Volkswagen (fifth). If the awards can be taken away after the fact, Volkswagen—which has been spewing nitrogen oxides from diesel since 2009—is likely to move to the rear of the pack. The ratings are a bit of a wake-up call to the domestic companies, since Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler all placed behind those foreign makes.

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