Energy projects: Setting boundaries

Don’t let project creep cause frustration. Establish goals and project limits early on, says Peter Garforth.

By Peter Garforth

When considering potential energy productivity projects, it is worth asking whether enough time is spent discussing a potential project’s scope or boundaries before the organization gets into action assessing options and coming up with recommendations. The way that project goals are framed and the agreed-upon limits of the playing field can fundamentally change the recommended solutions and outcomes. Spending a little more time at the start of a project exploring and agreeing upon possible “system boundaries” is usually a worthwhile effort.

The impacts on something as seemingly simple as a lighting efficiency project could be vastly different depending on the boundaries set. The narrowest boundary would call for installing more-efficient light bulbs in existing fittings. A small widening of the boundary would include installation of new luminaires. Considering relighting areas would raise the possibility of rethinking work layouts and task lighting. Lighting efficiency can also be tied to work schedules and overall building and manufacturing control approaches.

We can push this system boundary further and question whether we measure lighting in terms of electricity or useful lumens. When buildings and production work areas are renovated, more daylighting can be included as a design target. Expanding the boundary further, we can ask about the source of the electricity used to power the lighting. Recommendations with respect to this last question could include using on-site renewable generation or combined heat and power (CHP) or sourcing through green power contracts.

System boundaries can go beyond technical boundaries, too, and include economic and policy aspects. Should energy be costed based on today’s prices or estimates for future prices? Will the energy’s carbon content carry a current or future carbon cost? Does the energy cost include ongoing operations and maintenance? Does the energy benefit include increased productivity resulting from better lighting?

How should an energy manager answer the apparently simple question of, “How do we ensure we have energy-efficient lighting?” Given the possible system boundaries that could frame this question, the appropriate response is probably something along the lines of, “Let’s first agree what we mean by efficient.” This should be answered before work begins on proposing solutions and assembling resources.

If the answer is as simple as changing light bulbs, the solution is obvious. Research and find the best bulbs, and complete a financial justification based on the immediate savings at current or near-term energy prices. Once approved, the bulbs will be bought and installed, with the benefits tracked as part of ongoing energy management practices.

Any system boundary beyond this means the technical and economic analysis will have more facets. It’s a short step to include possible upgrades of building control and production management systems. Upgrading these could open the door for exploring collateral efficiency opportunities.

The wider the boundaries are drawn, the more opportunities will be identified. This will also necessitate a more-nuanced analysis, with more people and more departments incorporated into the project assessment team.

A wider boundary generally will raise the required level of management approval of scope and resources. It will also lengthen implementation timetables, which in turn can require different budgeting and capital approval approaches.

The more comprehensive and longer-term the possible energy-efficiency project becomes, the more important it is to know the plans for the facility’s future. This will require open discussions with senior management. At the extreme, if there is a question about the plant’s survival, perhaps a short-term gain from changing light bulbs is the right answer. On the other hand, there are cases where the facility’s competitiveness could be significantly improved through breakthrough energy performance.

Whether in the context of a factory or a city, exploring the boundaries of possible energy measures highlights the need for a multiyear, comprehensive, integrated energy master plan supported by all key stakeholders. At a minimum, a thoughtful exploration of and agreement on an energy project’s scope will create realistic expectations, minimize waste, and reduce frustration for all involved.

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