Schneider Electric North America is betting that energy-efficiency solutions and services will play a much larger role than alternative energy in achieving major cost savings for industrial and commercial facilities.

Energy-efficiency projects and solutions, such as metering and monitoring of consumption, can result in a payback of one to three years, says Jeff Drees the company's U.S. president. In comparison, the return on investment for a standard solar project could take as many as 10 years, possibly five to seven years with incentives or rebates, he says.

Most companies need a financial incentive to adopt green practices and technologies, said Drees while speaking to reporters during a product-launch event in Chicago on Sept 28. "Green is a great concept, but green has never sold a project," Drees says. Instead, environmental benefits must be marketed as a positive byproduct of cutting energy costs to attract customers, he says.

One of the most significant energy-savings opportunities for manufacturers can come from systems integration, says Drees. This can include enabling industrial automation systems to communicate with building automation controls so heat or air is not being delivered to idled plant-floor areas.

Schneider Electric has repositioned itself in recent years to providing more energy software solutions, management capabilities and consultancy services to customers who want to reduce their energy costs. The move helped the company weather the recession by tying its business to end markets rather than products, said Drees, One of the company's major initiatives in this area has been EcoStruxure, an integrated energy-management architecture that enables greater collaboration between facility and building managers, IT managers, plant supervisors and engineers.

Some customers are turning to Schneider Electric to manage their energy bills, says Barry Coflan, a senior vice president in the company's buildings business. Schneider Electric can monitor a company's energy usage via the Internet. Schneider Electric also utilizes web services, a high-level protocol on top of the Internet that enables communication from disparate systems. This helps present data in different formats for various business operations. For instance, a finance department wants to see energy usage in dollars and cents while a plant manager is interested in consumption figures, Coflan says.

Looking ahead five years or more, Drees says battery technology could be a game-changer for how manufacturers manage energy. Researchers are working on batteries with storage capacity that will be attached to plants to reduce energy costs during peak hours.

"There are some brilliant scientists from MIT that are launching businesses specifically around this kind of technology that I'm seeing some heavy venture capital dollars floating into this energy storage," Drees says. "I really see that as changing the dynamics of this energy-management supply-side discussion."