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Don't let today's low oil prices fool you. They won't last forever, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has little or no influence over natural gas or electricity. In fact, the closing of aging coal-generating power plants is expected to send electricity prices through the roof in many parts of the country in 2015 and 2016. The bottom line is that energy efficiency is as important as ever if you want to stay competitive in manufacturing.
Here is a rundown of the five top areas that every plant manager should focus on when implementing energy-saving measures:
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, manufacturing plants can often reduce process-heating costs by up to 15 percent by implementing energy-saving measures and best practices. Process heating accounts for more than one-third of energy use in the manufacturing sector, so any savings in this area are sure to make a big impact. Your facility may benefit from monitoring and controlling your exhaust gases and air-to-fuel ratios, heat-transfer improvements, and waste-heat recovery technology. If your process requires large amounts of hot water, preheating your process water with a solar-water heating system could result in significant savings for your plant.
Machine drive represents more than 22 percent of energy end use in the manufacturing sector. By analyzing shaft and system losses and upgrading to higher efficiency systems, you can lower your total operating costs significantly. Sometimes this means replacing your equipment. However, not every upgrade requires a lot of capital. You may find that you can improve your plant's mechanical performance simply by altering your maintenance or operation procedures.
Building-performance experts generally recognize lighting as the “low-hanging fruit” of energy savings. Energy-saving lighting options include daylighting through skylights and clerestories, high-efficiency fluorescent fixtures and bulbs, and the new LED tube lighting. Improving lighting efficiency doesn't always mean replacing your entire lighting infrastructure. You may be able to convert your existing housings with one of the many retrofit kits on the market today.
Don't overlook your utility providers as partners in energy savings. Review your current usage plans and contact them to see if they may be able to offer alternative procurement or demand-side management plans that might save you money. Many utilities also offer incentives for installing energy-saving improvements. Check with their competitors, too, and don't be afraid to negotiate. You may find you can benefit from the competition between utility companies.
Employee behavior is a vital component in energy efficiency. Keep your employees informed about your energy-efficiency goals and progress, and recognize them for their role in supporting these initiatives. Above all, encourage them to share their ideas about how your facility can be more efficient. They are likely to surprise you with their insights, and you may even find that they exhibit a newfound pride in their work. In fact, studies repeatedly show that energy-efficiency upgrades typically make workers more productive.
When planning an energy-efficiency program for your manufacturing plant, look first for low-cost or no-cost opportunities. Then, as your operating costs decrease, start investing in an improved energy infrastructure, such as a solar electric system, that will pay back big over time. With this approach, your energy-efficiency measures will help position your business competitively for years to come.
Ryan McNeill is the president of Renewable Energy Corporation, which specializes in solar panel installation and other energy products. Ryan has collaborated with the American Solar Energy Society, Sustainablog, Energy ViewPoints and other solar industry experts.