I’ve been catching up on some of my automation and industry RSS feeds, and saw an interesting post, Energy Costs: Why is Industry So Slooooooow to React?, from the Energy Pathfinder blog.
The post describes process manufacturers struggling with high energy costs. They tend to pursue lower energy prices first, but cutting waste is a much slower process. The fourth bullet point caught my attention:
To make energy improvements, a facility must accommodate change. Meaningful energy solutions require some combination of changes to technology, procedures, and practices. Change poses challenges–even threats–to people whose livelihood is connected to long-standing procedures and priorities. Change requires front line energy managers to practice a certain amount of salesmanship. Sadly, this kind of communication is often not the strength of most powerhouse superintendents or maintenance directors. Many good energy-saving proposals never get off the ground for this reason.
I sent a link to the article to Emerson’s Bob Sabin, whom you may recall from earlier posts. Bob is an energy-management consulting engineer and I wanted to see if his experiences were similar or different.
Bob wrote back:
It is curious why North American industry has been slow to react to energy costs, but then we have seen the same deliberate, measured response to other competitive pressures. Energy improvement projects compete with all other potential maintenance or improvement projects for the scarce capital dollar.
The way many organizations are structured, it does typically take a person acting as a project champion to raise an energy improvement idea for consideration. It takes a lot of effort to deliver the documentation regarding payback, to convince business management that there is low risk, and then to work with line operations to convince them that the project is in their interest, also. These champions most often emerge from operations or engineering middle management.
Unfortunately, middle management in many plants/mills suffers from existing day-to-day challenges and the lack of resources and training. They are often not in a position to make necessary changes to entrenched work processes. We see this every day in the instrumentation and control business.
With PCs on every desk, handhelds by the dozens, the Internet, wireless, and other technologies, a large percentage of plants/mills still struggle with basic process measurement and automatic control. There is still quite a bit of opportunity to apply basic process control technology to reduce energy consumption and improve other production performance measures.
The potential savings from lower energy costs can help place focus on education, leadership, and training which in turn will improve energy performance and other business metrics.
I agree with Bob’s assessment that progress begins with economic justification and the focus of an organizational champion to drive the process forward. With many North American facilities designed in an era of inexpensive energy, folks like Bob can work with plants and mills to develop the justification to make their production process more energy efficient.