Is it time to refocus the industrial energy auditing process?
By Nathan Rogers, Sustainability Leader at Lycopodium Process Industries
Wednesday, 31 March, 2021
Energy auditors are entrusted to provide recommendations towards efficient energy use, upgrades and alternatives, but too often have a blind spot when it comes to auditing the industrial processes on which manufacturing plants rely.
Conversely, industrial plant operators seek efficiency gains to get the most out of their facilities and operations, but it’s impossible to expect that they are fully acquainted with cutting-edge energy efficiency developments to make appropriate recommendations/changes.
These overlapping limitations point to arguably the largest currently untapped opportunities for energy efficiency and energy management improvements in industry. Operational and technical complexities within industrial/manufacturing facilities are, by their nature, not well serviced by the majority of energy engineers when conducting audits. Allowing an external consultant into a process plant to recommend changes requires a level of trust be placed in the auditor’s abilities and the majority of consultants who are experienced energy auditors are not sufficiently technically capable of providing a meaningful assessment of the main processes that such companies are operating. This trust-versus-capability conundrum for plant operators means that there are still vast opportunities for the right consultant to gain access to some of these more complex facilities and help improve energy management.
I still remember my first job as a graduate process engineer, when an engineer with 10 years’ experience (all at this particular company) mentioned to me he only had recently gained the trust of the operations team to make changes to the process. This doesn’t bode well for a completely unknown auditor to even get access in the first place.
Take this example from a recent webinar I attended for operations and engineering managers on the benefit of energy efficiency for industrial facilities. One attendee from a manufacturing company raised the issue of being unable to find the right technically capable consultant. They shared an experience of engaging an energy auditor onsite a decade ago, who recommended little more than to change the lights. This experience meant the manager was hesitant to request another audit, unable to see the value, particularly as the team felt it already had a good understanding of the site, the opportunities and the economic circumstances better than any consultant could.
There are undoubtedly technically capable energy auditors — albeit not necessarily easy to find — who are able to provide a meaningful energy audit of an entire facility. Unfortunately, bringing together client and consultant and having the right framework for them to collaborate effectively is the issue. Having a more rigorous certification process developed to help industry identify which consultant is the best candidate technically for their site is one solution. There are already some short courses and a special subsection of the AS3598:2014 Energy Auditing standard available, but these do not take the place of an experienced process engineer’s unique understanding and skills when assessing plant upgrade technical requirements.
Generally, the experienced engineer onsite, or a trusted engineer from an engineering consultancy with more traditional process engineering roots, would be asked to conduct process optimisation work. Unfortunately, this approach does not include the very important tie-ins and knowledge of the broader energy efficiency and energy management industry that exists outside the bubble of a single specific site. The answer lies in finding a consultancy able to incorporate process industry technical know-how with energy management industry experience, though such a crossover is a rarity.
This full-service approach can provide further improvements in process optimisation, production nameplate capacity, water, raw material use and pollution/carbon emissions/waste product mitigation opportunities, all of which invariably flow from attacking the main process itself rather than only assessing auxiliary services and built environment. The combination of these improvements adding multiple economic benefits also improves the chances of energy improvement projects being successfully implemented, as the business case improves with every resource-saving opportunity.
Is it time for a more rigorous look into the opportunities and barriers to action that the more complex industrial facilities face when commissioning an energy audit? The answer is invariably yes. The solution might just be getting the right people in the room with the right mix of skills and experience.
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