Energy management: Balancing innovation and experience

Peter Garforth says you need digital natives as well as longtime pros to make efficiency happen.

By Peter Garforth

The information revolution is beginning to redefine energy management in ways that are forcing us to explore the balance between operator experience and innovation. We are entering a time in which the marginal cost of digital technology is approaching zero. This is opening up the possibility of continuous optimization of energy efficiency, cost, or environmental impact. At the same time, bulletproof safety and production continuity must be maintained.

For most of our careers, the goal of energy management was to measure and manage complex manufacturing processes for optimal energy use in as close to real time as possible. The reality was that the cost and complexity of information and control technology was too high and capabilities were too low. In addition, fear of production disturbances put a premium on the operating skills of experienced employees. The result was a cautious approach that missed out on substantial optimization opportunities.

There has also been a tendency to bring in the experience and knowledge of skilled operators far too late in the process of optimization design. System specialists and manufacturing engineers led the design of automated process-control approaches. Simulation was limited, often for perfectly good reasons related to technical limits or costs. Operators were then trained on the finished system, having had little chance to influence its final design.

In many cases, this resulted in a predictable outcome. If the optimization performed differently from how experienced operators expected, parameters would be reset based on experience. This would ensure safety and reliability would be maintained at the cost of the desired optimization.

We also have to acknowledge major generational differences in the workforce. Engineers and other professionals in their 20s and 30s have grown up in a time in which sophisticated, low-cost digital technology is pervasive. They also are accustomed to rapid increases in capability and reductions in cost. Most senior operators and managers have had more cumbersome experiences with technology.

With the very low costs of digital technology today, it is increasingly feasible to develop comprehensive and realistic process simulators. Besides avoiding the need to interrupt or disturb current production, a comprehensive simulation also highlights added sub-metering and controls that will be needed to implement flexible energy optimization strategies.

This is the step where the generation gap can be closed. The team developing the simulation should include manufacturing and system engineers steeped in today’s digital world, along with experienced operators. As the simulation is developed, it will be validated with the real-world feel and experience and adapted accordingly.

Once the simulation closely resembles the optimized process acceptable to technical designers and operators, the values of energy and other productivity gains should be assessed. Assuming these benefits are attractive, a game plan to implement into production should be developed.

Investing time and effort in process simulation is low-cost and low-risk. It allows the systems and manufacturing engineers to test sophisticated data acquisition, analysis, and control strategies. Managed intelligently, it also ensures that solutions will be acceptable to the manufacturing leadership. Of most importance, it will pass the “smell test” of process operators who will be one of the most important factors in ensuring the process will be used as intended.

Balancing energy cost, reliability, efficiency, and environmental impact will be essential in the changing energy world. Carbon regulation will create new demands on managing emissions and penalties for failures to do so. Demand-side management (DSM) contracts will become more sophisticated and could present major opportunities to energy users that can deliver documented DSM reductions.

Energy productivity increases of 5% or more from active optimization aren’t uncommon, independent of more traditional efficiency upgrades. This energy-optimization focus also has collateral benefits on yield, consistency, and safety.

Three decades of Moore’s Law reducing digital technology cost to near zero is opening up unbelievable energy optimization possibilities. Are we gearing up to capture them without jeopardizing safety and reliability?

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