Put energy into people issues

It’s time for a little industrial energy waste amnesty, says Christopher Russell, contributing editor, in this month's Energy Saver column.

By Christopher Russell, contributing editor

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A lot of people in the chemicals industry are afraid to admit that they waste energy. Consider the typical comment, "We are already as efficient as we can be." Top managers, especially, have no practical choice but to say this. If a facility manager says "Sure, we have a number of inefficiencies, and they’ve accumulated under my watch," how long can he expect to stay employed? Admitting to energy waste is an embarrassment with potentially dire consequences.

Wasted energy is wasted money — a cost that the U.S. chemicals industry can no longer afford to ignore. The efficient use of steam, process heating, compressed air and other common plant utilities is the key to saving energy and money. This is a human endeavor as much as it’s technical. The latter should be straightforward — there’s a ton of technical how-to references available, especially at www.eere.energy.gov/industry. But all of those resources are useless if people aren’t willing to admit they need them.

Manufacturing leaders need to declare "amnesty" for plant personnel who are on the front lines of energy use. People shouldn’t risk losing their jobs because of yesterday's energy decisions. The causes of energy waste are deep-rooted. These causes took time to manifest, and are never limited to one individual's actions. Similarly, energy solutions often require unprecedented coordination of people across facility departments. Effective energy improvements really depend on the quality of management systems that address those issues.

Most industrial facilities, as well as their production processes and procedures, were designed when energy was relatively cheap, and therefore not a strategic concern to business managers. Certain work habits evolved on the facility floor that saved time and effort and had little financial consequence when energy costs were less significant.

Then, and even now, equipment operators would almost never see the utility bills for the energy they use. However, the trade-offs between time and money change as energy prices escalate and become more volatile. Equipment efficiency and reliability deteriorate through years of use. At the same time, new, higher-efficiency replacement equipment becomes available. In sum, these changing conditions and opportunities force facility managers and their staff to rethink their approaches to energy use.

Energy improvements don't entirely depend on large capital investments. Depending on the facility, 30% to 50% of the potential energy savings can come from better management of current assets and operating procedures (see The Enbridge Steam Saver Project).

Is your plant as efficient as it can be? Industry's decision-makers need to be made aware of the benefits and the hurdles to energy efficiency. Specifically:

  • Top managers must recognize and untangle the organizational barriers that prevent departments within their facilities from collaborating to achieve potential energy savings. For example, it's common for equipment operators to never see the invoices for the fuel and power consumed by their department. Accounting staff may not fully understand how energy consumption is related to the invoices they review. Organizational disconnects like this show how industrial energy waste can go unchecked.

  • Finance people need to understand the monetary impact of energy improvements. Financial payback analysis often fails to account for energy improvements' indirect impact on productivity, safety, product quality, and other non-energy benefits.

  • Facility maintenance staff need access to training and analytical tools that will help them to diagnose energy problems and evaluate solutions.

  • Many procurement professionals need a better understanding of energy use and its relationship to equipment selection and operations. Equipment purchased on the basis of lowest initial cost will often prove to be more costly to own over its economic life, due to excessive operating and maintenance requirements.

Procurement directors need to develop total-cost-of-ownership criteria for purchasing new and replacement equipment. Facilities need to make their standards for equipment selection clear to vendors, who might otherwise offer low first-cost items in order to beat competitive bids.

Revised procurement specifications can prevent the decisions that inadvertently erode a facility's energy efficiency. Engineering and procurement staff can collaborate to make standards for energy-efficient equipment purchases. To do this, they would establish a list of commonly-replaced equipment that is pre-approved to meet certain efficiency standards. This pre-approved list can be a reference point both for staff seeking to order replacement equipment as well as for vendors who serve the facility.

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