Why permanent energy monitoring is needed to meet sustainability goals

Make energy monitoring mission-critical.

By Bill Holmes, Holmes AutoPilot

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Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, in spite of what you may have read in the popular press, there has been little interest from most American industrial plants in reducing energy consumption and costs. The prevailing attitude has always been that utility costs are a fixed overhead expense, a cost of doing business. You just have to pay them.

Finally, that attitude seems to be changing. As a result of concerns over global health and our responsibility to do as much as we can for our children and their children, many companies have moved sustainability near the top of their corporate priorities. They have appointed chief sustainability officers (CSOs) and mandated reductions in solid waste and in water and energy consumption. Many have moved the responsibility for achieving those goals from the plant engineering team to the environmental health and safety team.

Their websites include goal statements such as, “We are committed to reducing our environmental footprint worldwide,” or “Our goal is to reduce energy consumption per ton of product 15% by 2017,” or “We are committed to reducing water consumption 15% by 2017.”

In the past year I have had the opportunity to hear a number of plant managers explain their plans. They all emphasized the need for information systems to help them make good decisions and achieve their ambitious goals. Several have described how they are measuring energy use within their plants. So what are the people in the plant doing to meet their companies’ goals?

I set up appointments at several of the plants whose managers I had heard from, because I wanted to talk to the people on the floor about their day-to-day energy management approach. How were they going to meet the goals that their companies’ websites and plant managers were touting?

At the first plant I visited, I asked one of the plant engineers how the plant was measuring energy use. The answer: “We aren’t. We’re don’t even have a way to read the utility meters. The only information we have comes from the utility bills. I have no idea how we are going to meet those goals.”

The annual report for one company included a number of case studies of projects that supposedly reduced annual energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. When we questioned the plant energy manager, he was shocked. The report included one of his projects, but he had never been told that it had been written up as a case study or included in the annual report. Because there had been no monitoring, he had no idea how the report authors had come up with the results.

At another plant, the situation was much the same. The energy manager stated: “We are an energy-intensive plant. We’re spending millions of dollars on utility costs and have zero monitoring. We know are we are wasting a tremendous amount of energy. I’ve been trying to get approval to install monitoring for several years, and all of my requests have been turned down by corporate. They are unwilling to fund monitoring until we can give them an ROI.”

To tell the truth, I wasn’t surprised. In more than 40 years in this profession, as hard as it may be for some to believe, I have yet to encounter a single facility with an energy monitoring system that shows where, when, how much, and how efficiently energy is used within the facility.

How do plant managers plan to verify that they have met their goals?

I hope they don’t do it like one of the largest printing plants in the U.S. does it. One of my closest friends, who has been in the energy systems business for nearly 40 years, was walking around the plant with the plant engineer, the person responsible for all of the plant’s utilities. When my friend noticed posters touting reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by the plant’s “green teams,” he was impressed. When he asked the plant engineer what they had done, the engineer’s answer was, “As far as I know, the only thing we have done is put up those posters.”

I also hope they don’t do it like an energy services company in Boston does it. One of the company’s executives told me that rather than install permanent instrumentation, the company uses M&V protocols to “estimate” savings and make them match their projections. As he told me, “We don’t want our clients to know we haven’t saved them what we promised; everybody is happy with our projections.”

They can’t do it from utility bills. Measuring the success of energy-efficiency efforts in a complex facility by only the decrease in monthly utility bills is not a valid way to determine utility cost savings. It’s not that simple. Energy systems are dynamic; they change every minute of every day. Industrial plants are continually adding, moving, and modifying energy systems to keep their product flowing smoothly. An added shift resulting from an increase in production could more than offset and obscure the savings from energy-efficiency improvements.

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