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Chattanooga's place in the automotive world takes a key turn today as Volkswagen marks the building of its only U.S. plant and an environmentally friendly strategy to help triple sales nationally by 2018.

"I think there is a very good fit between a green town, a green plant and, of course, green cars," said Frank Fischer, chief executive of the German automaker's Chattanooga operations.

Top Volkswagen board members from Germany, along with Gov. Phil Bredesen and other state and local officials, will take part today in a ceremony raising the plant's first wall at the Enterprise South industrial park site.

The German contingent is minus VW CEO Martin Winterkorn, who decided to stay back at his Wolfsburg, Germany, headquarters as officials for VW and Porsche hammer out a proposed merger.

VW plans to play off Chattanooga's sustainability initiatives and the company's own green efforts. According to VW, the new manufacturing plant will hold a bevy of features to save energy and money. Among those are:

* Efficient electric motors saving 3 million kilowatt hours a year, enough to supply electricity to 750 households.

GREEN SAVINGS

VW officials say that when the plant's paint shop becomes operational in early 2011, a new process will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent.

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* Lighting that saves 1.15 million kilowatt hours annually over typical industrial uses.

* LED technology over conventional fluorescent tubes in its 12-foot VW sign will save 4,600 kilowatt hours annually.

* Advanced welding technology will save 222,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year.

* Recycling stormwater will save 290,000 gallons of fresh water.

In addition, VW itself is pinning some of its hopes in the United States on its clean diesel technology. The company says its Jetta four-cylinder turbo-diesel gets 41 miles per gallon and is eligible for a $1,300 federal tax credit.

Mr. Fischer marveled at what Chattanooga has done to renew its downtown, anchored by the Tennessee Aquarium.

"I was touring Chattanooga again and (am) aware at what kinds of changes Chattanooga has lived though in last 20 years. It's absolutely incredible," he said.

The 1,600-acre Enterprise South industrial park is a former U.S. Army ammunition plant that made TNT used in World War II. Tom Edd Wilson, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, recalled when it was "very raw" earlier this decade.

"It had not been cleaned up," he said. "We had a dream but not a plan."

VW, aiming to pass Toyota as the world's No. 1 automaker, is making a $1 billion bet in Chattanooga in order to ramp up U.S. sales to 1 million vehicles a year.

Auto industry analyst Erich Merkle of Crowe Horwath said VW is a small player in the U.S. market now and made mistakes in the past.

"They haven't figured out the American market," he said.

But the plan to build a midsize sedan in Chattanooga in early 2011 that is priced similarly to a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord is a move in the right direction, Mr. Merkle said.

"That's really what they needed," he said. "It will be much better received and more appropriate for the American market than where it has been in the past."

The VW plant is expected to employ about 2,000 people. Other supplier plants and spin-off companies are expected to employ thousands of others, according to officials.

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