Industrial Energy Efficiency / by CZ Energy Management

Why Efficiency Is So Much Harder in Industrial Facilities



“There’s a myth in the industry that energy efficiency is always easy.”

Energy efficiency is often compared to picking up dollar bills off the ground. It is, in theory, one of the simplest ways to save money in a facility.

In commercial buildings, those dollar bills can be hanging around within close reach. As a analyst from FirstFuel pointed out, nearly half of the efficiency opportunities in commercial buildings can be realized through changes to behavior or tweaks to equipment operation schedules. That doesn't mean equipment retrofits aren't needed, but it illustrates the relative simplicity of savings potential.

However, what if those dollar bills were stuffed underneath a conveyer belt at a pulp mill? Or shoved behind the freezer coils at a meat processing facility? Picking up those bills wouldn't be nearly as simple.

Reaping savings in the industrial sector is more like a scavenger hunt, or like sitting in one of those money machine booths grasping at dollar bills as they wildly whip around.

 A few years ago, our firm developed its own piece of data collecting software, which focuses on how to tweak operations to save energy in industrial facilities.

So what makes the industrial sector so much different? Here are a few factors to consider.

Industrial environments are extremely complex

In an office building where usage patterns are less varied, it's fairly easy to model energy consumption and normalize it against external factors, therefore providing solid predictions on how to operate equipment. But in an industrial facility where weather, product variation and constantly changing schedules are the norm, predictions are far more difficult.

For example, a pulp mill may see dramatic changes in energy use day to day based on the size of logs, volume of logs and whether they are wet or dry.

The Israeli company Lightapp does something similar in the manufacturing sector by monitoring how materials input, maintenance routines and other factors impact production efficiency. Both companies see operations and maintenance as a core way to address energy use.

"There's a whole greenfield of efficiency that hasn't been tapped through O&M. But you need a tool that can take a tremendous number of independent variables and make sense out of them.

Efficiency is a relatively low priority for many industrial companies

At most facilities, energy efficiency ranks below safety, meeting environmental regulations, and productivity. So getting a facility manager to care about energy use requires a lot more than walking in with a cool-looking dashboard. Industrial customers are very risk-averse and will not make changes to existing processes if they could jeopardize the flow of operations.

"We know that energy is not the most important thing for them. They're already used to measuring everything, and they're used to seeing copious amounts of data, so there needs to be an extremely good link between action and measurement of the results.

Even when industrial customers show interest, they are often very slow to integrate new processes. That means a company like Building Analyst Group has few chances to sell a new product or service throughout the year, and usually needs a window of opportunity when there is downtime at a plant. In addition, a deep understanding of the equipment at a facility may only be held by a few people with deep-seated resistance to change. This "tribal knowledge" factor can make continuous process improvements tough.

Energy savings in the industrial sector are often "lumpy"

Due to the wide range of variables in the industrial environment, savings don't always come as consistently as they often do in the commercial sector. This makes efficiency opportunities highly variable and can make monitoring and verification much more technical. Like any customer, companies in the industrial space want to know what the savings will be upfront before a project is approved -- making accurate modeling extremely important. 

Despite those challenges, Building Analyst Group has seen some pretty significant savings across its portfolio of companies. The food giant Sysco reported a 35 percent drop in energy use at its warehouses since 2006 . Another customer, the polymer manufacturer Fitesa, is cutting energy use by nearly 20 percent a year through better monitoring of production lines.

These savings are not all through software. Building Analyst Group also plays a more traditional energy management role by designing projects and installing equipment. But the software-based approach can have a big impact itself. Light app, another industrial efficiency company that focuses on streamlining operations through software, said its 40 customers have seen yearly energy savings of between 6 percent and 15 percent.

The industrial space is extremely technical, however. And both companies have to work hard to convince plant managers and other operators they can meet those technical challenges and bring real savings without interrupting the flow of production.

"Energy efficiency is a business decision. No company is going to do industrial energy efficiency because of the way it makes them feel. If you’re going to do deep conservation in the industrial sector, you can’t ignore the technical components that are radically different from commercial or residential."