Sustainable Plants Go Mainstream

Companies shift to sustainable manufacturing and green products.

The New Belgium Brewing Co., in Fort Collins, Colo., was green before green became cool. The brewery appointed a sustainability expert in 2002. In 2006, the company raised the position to boardroom status, placing the company’s former chief financial officer and chief operating officer in the role of sustainability director.

At first, the effort to go green was an expense—the price the company was willing to pay to elevate its position among employees and customers. In the last few years of energy spikes, the effort toward sustainability comes with a return on investment (ROI). “The payoff for sustainability is in dollars now,” says Jenn Orgolini, sustainability director at New Belgium Brewing. “It took a long time for the ROI, but the payoff is there now.”

Like many plants, the brewery first turned to the usual culprits of heating and cooling to cut energy use. “We purchase equipment that has high heat and cooling efficiencies,” says Orgolini. “We use green building practices, super-efficient equipment, efficient lighting and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system that doesn’t use a compressor or Freon.”

The company took this effort further by converting the brewing waste into energy-producing methane. “We burn our waste in a co-generator that turns a turbine to create electricity,” says Orgolini. In order to get the most from the methane produced by waste, the company stores the gas in a large methane balloon and burns it during times of peak electricity cost. “Thirty percent of our electricity now comes from burning methane from our waste.”

The brewery is also using its Wonderware control system to identify and eliminate energy waste. “Control equipment is being used to monitor the energy usage,” says Keith Jones, program manager for HMI, supervisory and SCADA platforms at Wonderware, an Invensys company in Lake Forest, Calif. “Plants are now turning to their control systems to determine where there’s waste. You can set it up to shut down water usage during rainfall.”

Sustainable manufacturing has become a big concern at virtually all plants. The initial interest in good corporate citizenship has given way to the reality that green makes good economic sense. “The energy spike has been like an electric shock to the manufacturing community,” says Stephen Stokes, vice president of Climate Change Business, AMR Research Inc., in Boston. “Now, companies are trying to provide the greenest product and the greenest manufacturing.”

Green turns gold

Even as companies turn to sustainable practices to trim energy costs, the goal of good corporate citizenship remains important. Companies know their customers want clean products and they want those products produced in an environmentally responsible manner. These dual pressures to cut costs and meet the market’s desire for environmentally friendly processes and products has changed behavior in the plant control room. High energy costs and customer demand has turned green into gold.

One of the factors prompting companies toward sustainability is the coming pressure from utility companies. All over the world, utilities are starting to penalize plants that put excessive pressure of the power grid. “Utility companies across the country and world are monitoring power, and they’re assessing big penalties on companies that are putting a poor power factor on the grid,” says Joel Shapiro, group manager for industrial measurement and control, National Instruments Corp., an Austin, Texas-based automation vendor. “The vast majority of buildings around the world will be mandated to improve their power factor or get strict fines from the utility.”

Another motivator is simply cost. Rising energy costs are making most chief executives believers is the virtue of green. “Mostly, manufacturers are going green because they see the benefit in total cost of ownership,” says Dan Throne, marketing manager at Bosch Rexroth Corp.’s Electric Drives & Controls Division, in Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Energy is one third of the cost of plant operations, so they’re turning to energy conservation to save money.”

Throne notes that energy costs have long been high in Europe, which forced Europe to lead on energy efficiency. “In Germany, everything is about green and energy savings. When you’re paying $7 for a gallon of gas, you have pressure on a facility's energy consumption.”

The green movement at plants began as a move to good corporate citizenship. For years, the investment in green was considered a cost of doing business—not a savings. High energy costs just make a good decision easier to implement. “As the board meets and the chief executive officers meet, they realize they have to be good corporate citizens,” says Charlie Rastle, manager of the CPG industry for vendor Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee. “Even as they reduce energy to provide an advantage to the bottom line, they also want to do the right thing.”

Whether the motivation is avoidance of utility penalties, corporate citizenship or raw reduction in cost, sustainability has become top-of-mind among executives. “As I go to different conferences, sustainability is definitely one of the hot topics of the day,” says Craig Resnick, research director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., Dedham, Mass. “As for motivation, a lot of it is that they want to be good corporate citizens. But if there’s a cost reason to go green, they’re especially interested.”

Sustainable tactics

Plants are changing the way they run their operations. Where possible, they are optimizing their equipment. Efficiency has been a high ideal for years, but it has become more important now that sustainability issues are paramount. Old plants are getting makeovers with optimizing tweaks. That means new instruments that trim energy use on the line and make adjustments to everything from air conditioning and lighting, to packaging and logistics. When plants buy new equipment, they’re looking for environmentally sound solutions—lighter equipment that uses less energy. For more on green tactics and sustainability, see "Tactics vs. Strategy".

For most plants, investing in new, efficient machines is not an option. Instead, plants are working to make their existing equipment more efficient. “In manufacturing, many of the plants were built 20 to 30 years ago,” says Shapiro from National Instruments. “Now, things need to be corrected, and it’s too expensive to start from scratch.”

Control engineers are taking their old equipment and making it more energy smart. “Plants are adding increased intelligence and advanced control algorithms to increase the efficiency of their machines,” says Shapiro. “You can retrofit an inspection machine to identify faulty parts sooner.”

The main tool for tweaking greater efficiency out of older equipment is measurement. If you can measure it, you can control it. “Getting efficient starts with measurement,” says Brian MacCleery, senior product manager for embedded and control, at National Instruments. “You can measure the inflow of energy and the outflow. The goal is to use instruments to measure as much of it as you can, so you can reduce it.”

Things have changed in the world of instruments to make the measuring process easier. “Now, you can analyze the overall automation system to see where it’s inefficient. You can measure it and fix it with advanced control,” says MacCleery. “That wasn’t feasible five years ago. Now, it’s feasible and it’s not very expensive.”

Plants are tying the measurement instruments to the control systems. “You can monitor the use of energy by extending the control system to monitor what you didn’t used to monitor,” says Wonderware’s Jones. At Wonderware, the company is eating its own dog food. “We have a mandate here at Wonderware to reduce our energy waste by 10 percent by 2009.”

Efficiency instruments are also being deployed off site. If instrumentation can prevent dispatch, energy is saved. “You can do monitoring for preventative maintenance. By using remote diagnostics without going on site, you save energy” says Brian Anderson, vice president at Adexa Inc., a company in Los Angeles, that helps companies remotely monitor, diagnose and repair equipment in the field. “If you can determine and affect a correction remotely, you’ll get ROI.”

Grab the lead

Sustainability began life in high technology, where environmentally friendly products and processes became competitive factors years ago. “In the high tech space, there is a real climate war, with companies trying to provide the greenest product and manufacturing environment,” says AMR’s Stokes. “[Laptop personal computer makers] Dell and H-P (Hewlett-Packard) have jostled in the press for the longest-lasting batteries. That’s a game changer.” Recently, though, the goal to go green has spread to virtually all industries.

The rush to energy efficiency and green manufacturing is prompting the development of new technology and new instrumentation. Many believe the country that takes the lead in this development can grab a global economic advantage. “If we don’t grab ahold of this and make the United States the leader, we will lose the battle and the war,” says Stokes. “In every regard, being green is on the bleeding edge. Our leader isn’t in the White House any longer, it’s the Green House.”

Author Thomas Friedman, who wrote the bestseller, “The World Is Flat,” has recently released, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” The book’s premise is that the energy technology movement will boom in the same way information technology exploded during the past 30 years. He insists that the country that leads in energy technology will lead the world economically over the coming decades.

Don’t expect a reversal of the green movement if energy costs go down. After the oil embargo and energy spike of the late 1970s, oil fell below $20 per barrel and the auto industry returned to making huge cars, ushering in the 20-year dominance of sport utility vehcles (SUVs). But falling energy prices are not expected to budge the current emphasis on green. Climate change and consciousness of the environmental impact of our behavior will likely keep sustainability a high priority at all plants for decades to come.

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