Electrical Systems / Energy Management

Taking the first step toward energy efficiency

Follow these best practices in energy efficiency auditing and implementation.

By Mary Ramsey, Schneider Electric

In brief:

  • We’re seeing energy efficiency become a critical aspect of plant operations, as manufacturers put a focus on slashing energy demand to become more attractive to customers, as well as to cut costs.
  • Before any upgrades, retrofits, or additions are made, it’s critical to conduct an energy assessment, preferably by an outside, third-party specialist.
  • Another key to energy-efficiency implementation is prioritization. Creating a realistic strategy aligned with your budget and goals is vital, and energy specialists can help you to decide which available strategies will be most effective and aligned with this vision.

The industrial sector accounts for approximately one-third of the total energy consumed globally, with energy-intensive industries representing 83% of that number. At the same time, the cost of electricity is continuing to rise and becoming more volatile. Energy is no longer a static budget item. It must be treated as a changing raw material cost.

Between rising costs, more uncertainty, and fewer overall resources, manufacturers also are faced with pressures to manage a product’s entire lifecycle with sustainability in mind. The competing goals are enough to make anyone’s head spin, but there are a number of steps any manager can take to ensure a balanced approach and deliver value.

Energy efficiency as a business strategy

We’re seeing energy efficiency become a critical aspect of plant operations, as manufacturers put a focus on slashing energy demand to become more attractive to customers, as well as to cut costs. Implementing energy-efficiency tactics can seem like a daunting task, but, by taking an active approach to energy use, organizations can reap tremendous rewards. A 15-30% return on energy-efficiency investments is not only possible today, but provides an attractive ROI that ensures upper-management buy-in for the implementation of these technologies.

The advent of the smart grid has served as a catalyst for the development of more intelligent technologies, which help manufacturers to take an active approach to controlling energy consumption. These technologies move far beyond just lowering energy bills by allowing for better optimization in productivity and meeting sustainability goals for the organization.

So you want your facilities to be energy efficient, but where do you even start? For many, taking the first step toward efficiency is often the most difficult and most daunting, as successful implementation requires not only the insight and knowledge of effective efficiency strategies, but also an eye to where they can be put to best use, especially when you take budgets and prioritization into account.

Before you begin

Before any upgrades, retrofits, or additions are made, it’s critical to conduct an energy assessment, preferably by an outside, third-party specialist. These specialists breathe energy management day in and day out, and they can significantly increase the ROI you get from such projects. Though facility engineers are often nominated for a building’s assessment, they often face the pitfall of only looking at a building’s operations — whether or not the light bulbs are efficient, whether or not everyone is turning the computer off at night. But, when you add it up, these only account for less than 10% of a building’s energy usage.

What they often do not see are the potential efficiency improvements within the industrial processes of the building — the HVAC systems, the manufacturing floor, the data center, all of which constitute a tremendous majority of a facility’s energy consumption. Whether you’re an automotive manufacturer, a food packager, a chemical processor, or a coal mining company, all of these systems in your facilities are ripe for significant improvements.

And these improvements don’t always translate into complicated, expensive endeavors. For example, energy meters provide an enormous wealth of energy data. But because the vast majority of these meters aren’t networked together, or to anything for that matter, most of this data vanishes into an un-actionable black hole. An easy way to fix this is to put in a visualization system to network these meters, using your existing Ethernet and routers to bring this data to the forefront via an energy management dashboard that allows you to see where energy is being used, where it’s being wasted, and where efficiency needs to be implemented, all on your monitor. The meter infrastructure is already in place, so why not facilitate these connections?

Don’t become overwhelmed

Another key to energy-efficiency implementation is prioritization. Creating a realistic strategy aligned with your budget and goals is vital, and energy specialists can help you to decide which available strategies will be most effective and aligned with this vision. Even more important than prioritization, however, is ensuring that energy efficiency is a visible objective within your enterprise. We’re beginning to see lowering energy use, especially as a way to deal with volatile costs, becoming a board-level issue. Upper-management support is critical in ensuring that you have the support and backing you need to make changes that will actually make a difference and impact the bottom line. Early metrics, such as those facilitated by the aforementioned energy dashboard, can be an excellent way to obtain this high-level buy-in, as such concrete numbers move areas of concern from abstract, backburner problems to real operational issues.

Don’t have budget for any energy assessment right off the bat? Even if not, it’s important to start somewhere. For more primitive, initial readings to form a foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and even possibly your utility, depending on your area, offers industrial assessment centers that can give you an idea of where to begin your strategies. Although you will need a more strategic partner in the long term to make sure your energy goals coincide with that of your business, these assessments are an effective way to improve low-energy intensive processes.

So, now you have a strategy, you have priorities, and you might even have different phases planned out in the order you want to implement upgrades, perhaps to prevent interruption in operations, or maybe simply because you don’t have the budget to do everything at once. But now what?

Rely on the right technologies

Working with your energy specialist to procure the right technologies and solutions is crucial, as many factors, such as price, quality, and compatibility with existing equipment, can affect how well a particular piece of efficient equipment contributes to your long- and short-term goals.

For example, a “rip and replace” strategy is not always effective, especially when dealing with hardware. Many intelligent energy systems are open to commercially available protocols throughout an existing facility, and can be easily connected. However, you must make sure you’re dealing with an energy partner who is fluent with these languages and able to interface with them. If not, you risk incurring a great deal more expense than necessary.

As mentioned before, software, especially energy management dashboards, are a cornerstone of smart energy usage. That being said, it’s critical to make sure the software solution you implement is energy enabled. Although it is possible to take almost any SCADA or MES and turn it into a sort of energy dashboard, don’t make this mistake. This could cost you tons of hours of integration labor, as well as enormous expenses in the form of software additions and expansions, as well as the risk of it not being compatible with future upgrades. Though you might already be fluent with how to use these systems, take the time and initial upfront cost to install systems that were programmed specifically to be energy intelligent. Your wallet, employees, and operational processes will thank you in the end.

Protect your investment

Once your hardware and software are installed, make sure to not to fall victim to common pitfalls that can minimize the value of your hard-won upgrades and efforts. Quite often, energy-efficiency technologies are put into place, and then overridden to follow short-term maintenance concerns. For example, a conveyer belt could be optimized to run at a specific speed for ultimate efficiency. Let’s say a crisis causes a worker to override this setting to speed up production, with the full intentions of returning it to its optimized setting. Now, if that person goes off-shift during the crisis, it is quite possible to forget this change, and the belt risks running on manual override for months. Though it may not seem like it would affect much, imagine dozens of belts in this scenario, as well as any other tinkered-with processes. Your workers might not notice, but your energy bill will.

Mary Ramsey is senior vice president of U.S. industry business at Schneider Electric.Mary Ramsey is senior vice president of U.S. industry business at Schneider Electric.

This makes policies and procedures unarguably necessary. Make sure these are written, known and enforced, and your ROI, as well as your lessened carbon footprint, will shine. Like your upper management, your employees and shift workers are just as critical to efficiency, and as such need to know your procedures. Training and educating your staff in certain efficiency goals and standards, such as those in the ISO 50001, the latest in global energy efficiency standards for facilities, can not only build their confidence in the sustainability and smart operations of your enterprise, but guarantee their commitment to such projects.

Finally, remember that energy management is not a one-and-done initiative. It must be lived every day, tweaked when needed, and continuously monitored as you would any other business function.