Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Energy’s Unintended Value

Any industrial organization that wishes to control its energy costs must overcome a few significant hurdles. The most commonly understood hurdle may be the cost (and payback performance) of energy-efficient equipment and technologies. But hardware is only part of it. There are human choices—made daily on factory floors—that not only drive energy expenses, but also adversely skew the financial payback of energy “projects.” Through time and habit, human organizations develop and depend on a variety of unintended uses for energy. Recognizing these unintended uses may be critical to reducing energy costs while also improving the payback on efficient equipment.

An industrial engineer thinks of energy primarily as the source of heat, pressure, and motive power needed to refine raw materials into the final products we consume. Energy is also used to condition the space where work is performed. But keep in mind that the people who design and select equipment are usually quite different from the people that maintain and operate the equipment. Maintenance and operations personnel have a variety of responsibilities, needs, and motives for making the choices they do. These choices become institutionalized over time, as evidenced by the common refrain, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” People begin to use energy in ways that engineers and other technicians never anticipated. These “services” represent industry’s unintended demand for energy. Here are some examples:

Proof of effort.
In today’s competitive, cost-sensitive economy, a worker’s survival depends on keeping busy, or at least appearing to keep busy. This may explain why many operators prefer to leave certain machines running, even when there is no work in process. Motor drives, pneumatic tools, and other factory machinery all make a distinct racket. A manager can, after a time, detect what machinery is running without having to look—it can simply be heard. The sound implies that “yes, we are busy.” The energy wasted by machines that run unnecessarily is of no consequence to the worker—the energy cost is not reflected in his or her paycheck. However, energy provides a valuable service to the operator who wishes to maintain the appearance of keeping busy.

A similar example is the excess venting of steam plumes. In at least one instance, a facility routinely vented excess steam through the roof. This practice was condoned by the front office because these plumes were evidence that “everything was up and running.” While this practice was extremely convenient from a communications standpoint, it failed to recognize the fact that the money spent on generating this steam was literally “going up in smoke.”

Budget defense.
Unfortunately, many organizations maintain the fiscal habit of developing next year’s budget based on the previous year’s performance. In other words, the department that successfully decreases its expenditures this year can actually be penalized with a smaller budget next year. While few managers actively promote waste, many more simply won’t challenge it. They can then confidently prop up their funding request for the coming year’s budget. In terms of energy use, this again means running machines unnecessarily, using fuel-rich combustion settings, and ignoring losses attributable to steam or compressed air distribution leaks.

Comfort and convenience. Here’s an example: workers may use compressed air, which is a very expensive plant utility, to perform work that could be just as effectively performed by a brush or broom. In some instances, a less expensive utility such as flash steam could supplant the use of compressed air. An egregious example comes from one clever factory employee who “air conditioned” his workstation with streams of compressed air, which he enjoyed by simply tapping several nozzles into overhead air distribution lines.

Lighting obviously contributes to the safety of working environments. We also use lighting “services” to make a space more welcoming. We develop a habit for leaving lights on regardless of the space—storage rooms, break rooms, and worse, in rooms that are perfectly lit with natural daylight. As power becomes more expensive, we are forced to rethink these habits. Sensors and programmable controls are readily available to make the decisions that we humans can’t (or won’t) make.

The take-away is this: attempts to control energy use will almost always run afoul of someone’s dependence on the service that energy provides. Energy managers need to understand the unintended value of energy use in a facility. On one hand, this implies finding ways to compensate for “services” that are compromised by reduced energy use. On the other hand, there’s nothing like high energy prices to rethink our priorities and reduce wasteful practices.



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