Draw attention to energy problems

Aug. 12, 2008
Energy Expert Peter Garforth says drawing attention to the problem is a fundamental part of any effective energy strategy.

When walking through Copenhagen or Mannheim on a sunny day under blue skies, am I really aware of the decades of integrated energy strategies that put them among the most efficient and least-polluting cities on the planet? The efficiency of the buildings, the widespread use of district heating, the heat recovery from electric generation and the comprehensive use of nontraditional fuels and renewable energy are invisible. Even less visible are the enormous competitive edges these approaches have produced for the Danish and German energy productivity industries. They’ve cut their teeth serving their home markets, and now enjoy enviable market shares around a world waking up to the need for energy efficiency.

It’s no different in an energy-efficient plant. The visitor walking though a Toyota facility won’t see the dollars of energy cost saved on each vehicle. But competitors see the profit advantage when dollars are multiplied by the nearly 10 million cars Toyota makes every year.

Effective breakthrough energy-management programs, especially in the early stages, focus heavily on making the invisible visible. It’s critically important to engage and sustain the attention of senior business and financial management. I always remember a particularly creative example of communicating the impact of energy use in a glass furnace to the financial staff. The plant energy team attached an ultrasonic flow meter to the gas line, and instead of calibrating in Gigajoules or cubic meters, they used dollars at the current tariff. When visitors walked past the large LED display showing thousands of dollars an hour going into the furnace, the question as to how to slow the meter quickly came to the fore.

I’ve seen cogeneration installations consciously designed to have space for visitors to be briefed on the benefits, LCD displays showing greenhouse gas and energy economics compared to “business as usual,” and oversized meters that were easily read and explained. When visualization features like these are designed in from the start, the incremental costs are trivial, and the ongoing value is huge.

We also fall down when it comes to reporting energy results. In most companies, there’s nothing more boring and unattractive than the energy report. At one company, the monthly reports were 10 pages of tiny-print Excel spreadsheets. They basically went unread, so management was unaware of an impending crisis in energy costs. They underscored the feeling that energy is a purely operational issue, and not a strategic senior-management issue.

The new energy manager distilled the cost, usage and greenhouse gas data into some simple, colorful bar charts. These clearly told a story of improving efficiency being overwhelmed by energy price increases. The heightened awareness triggered a root-and-branch look at every aspect of energy productivity, including procurement, efficiency and new production technology. It also triggered a basic reassessment of the company’s stance on tracking and managing greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s rare to see energy reports presented in a way that is relevant to the targeted audience. Energy teams should take some accountability for not getting the support they think they deserve. If the reports for the financial leaders are too technical and for the technical leaders, and too financial and too boring for everyone else, it’s not hard to see why the messages are missed.

Leaders all too often say energy efficiency is a high priority, then fail to demonstrate that fact in words and deeds. Visible public recognition for effective energy management should be a regular event in a company seeking to change its energy culture. Awards of every kind, from simple certificates through training and hard cash, should be systematically and routinely delivered to teams, plants and individuals. In recognizing individuals, remember that it’s as important for the CEO to publicly recognize a divisional VP who shows leadership around energy as it is for the plant leader to recognize the shift engineer.

In most companies, breakthrough energy performance drops millions of dollars to the bottom line, and should be celebrated every bit as enthusiastically as new orders. The great ideas I’ve seen to visualize energy performance from world-class energy teams would fill a book, and are limited only by the creativity of the participants. However, they’re still the minority. If we don’t turn our attention to the challenge of visualizing energy productivity, most organizations will turn in mediocre to poor energy results. In today’s world, that increasingly means poor business results.

Peter Garforth is principal of Garforth International LLC, Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected].

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