Energy Audits Pinpoint Ways to Save

Talk about ROI! Make a no-cost energy audit your plant’s next investment.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Old school thinking had it that energy usage was pretty much a fixed cost on the operations ledger. While that notion has faded under the influences of deregulation, fluctuating costs, energy shortages and waves of new energy purchase and conservation strategies, many food processing companies have yet to give energy management the attention it merits.

That’s a mistake. Fortunately, it is one that can be easily and economically rectified beginning with an energy audit of your plant and operations network.

There’s no reason to waste your energy today. No-cost and low-cost energy audit opportunities often are only a phone call or an e-mail away. Furthermore, utility companies themselves are realizing the benefits of helping customers and prospective customers manage their energy wisely. They realize that a company they can help control and manage its costs is more likely to remain a long-term customer.

A good energy audit will consist of a comprehensive examination of a plant and its processes, along with its energy bills, meters and other systems of measure, to determine energy usage, cost and efficiency. An effective auditor also will alert the processor to the best available options in energy-saving equipment, energy purchasing, scheduling, rebates and financing options for energy-related constructions, installations and upgrades.

Some food processors are ahead of the general curve for American industry when it comes to energy-saving savvy. Some even have made a high priority of energy conservation and efficiency in their plant systems and have benefited handsomely as a result.

NOTE TO MANAGEMENT

Is energy management a priority within your company? Energy management may not be part of your job, but it should be an explicit part of someone’s job description. Moreover, it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Check with manufacturing, engineering, maintenance and operations executives and with plant managers, logistics heads and others in charge of energy-intensive operations regarding energy auditing and implementation of best practices.

Offices, too, should be audited for energy efficiency, and office personnel indoctrinated into energy-saving practices. Adopting and implementing best practices in energy management will almost certainly produce quick savings. Revisiting those practices regularly will assure those dollars don’t slip through the cracks later on.

ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb., for example, gives awards to its production facilities for outstanding energy savings through its Sustainable Development program, which recognizes company efforts that simultaneously enhance the environment and the corporation’s bottom line. Its 2004 award winners included modification of boil times and temperature for the sanitation systems at a grocery products plant in Trenton, Mo., and a project that recycled blanch water for heat recovery and reuse in a potato products plant in Park Rapids, Minn.

One purpose of the Sustainable Development program, which has slashed more than $60 million from the corporation’s operating costs in the past five years, is to seed other plants and divisions of the sprawling ConAgra production network with proven money-saving concepts. The Refrigerated Foods Group received Best Practices recognition for reducing energy consumption at all plants by 3 percent. At least one divisional engineering head has hired a prominent engineering firm to conduct extensive energy audits at all of the division’s plants to extract comparable savings in 2005 and beyond.

Grab low-hanging fruit

Energy guidelines and gurus can be found almost anywhere. But a lot of the guiding wisdom today derives from the simplest of principles: Use energy only at the exact time, the exact place and in the exact amount you need to produce the volumes and quality your customers require.

While that principle sounds simple, the breadth of its application consistently escapes many food processors. Energy providers point out most companies focus on the energy consumed by lighting, heat and other basic facility requirements. These costs comprise only about 40 percent of the average manufacturer’s energy costs and, in an energy-intensive business like food, they may comprise an even smaller percentage.

A sharp-eyed energy savant may uncover countless points along production lines for energy savings and help slash the cost of that other 60 percent of the plant’s total energy bill, which often is invisible to management.

While independent energy use experts may find solutions that escape conventional audits, such resources are not always cheap. And while they may well be worth their fees over time, you may want to start with no-cost and low-cost audits to identify the low-hanging fruit that yields quick and easy energy and cost savings.

Utility companies across the country provide audits that not only help identify the energy wasters in your plant, but also unveil cost- or energy-saving options you may not have known existed.

The federal government and many states, too, offer free energy audits, rebates and other incentives plus financing options that can make energy-efficiency upgrades affordable -- even painless.

The federal government’s Industrial Assessment Centers program (www.oit.doe.gov/iac) provides comprehensive industrial assessments at no cost to manufacturers. Teams of engineering faculty and students from 26 universities located across the country conduct energy audits or industrial assessments, and advise manufacturers on ways to save energy, as well as reduce waste and improve productivity.

Universities with high-profile engineering departments often can provide energy audits that go beyond the scope of a utility-directed audit. “The University of Florida in Gainesville has a program that trains industrial engineers. It will send students and faculty to conduct very comprehensive audits,” says Rob Jennings, account manager for TECO Energy Inc. and its regulated utility subsidiary Tampa Electric Co. (www.tampaelectric.com). “They may make recommendations on waste management and other things beyond energy that can also save a company money.”

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