Eyeing Energy Savings

March 17, 2006
The Department of Energy hopes free audits will encourage manufacturers to implement savings measures.

Shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita shut down oil and gas production along the Gulf Coast, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman warned consumers that heating prices could rise as much as 21% this past winter.

In anticipation of skyrocketing energy costs, the Department of Energy (DOE) in October launched a free energy- assessment program for the nation's 200 most energy-intensive plants. Plants participating in the DOE's Save Energy Now campaign receive free audits of their steam and process-heating systems, which consume nearly 80% of the energy used by U.S. industries.

The plants were selected out of 524 applicants from a variety of industries -- including the automotive, paper, fertilizer and pharmaceutical sectors -- that comprise 10% of total industrial energy use and 15% of industrial natural gas use in the United States, says Doug Faulkner, the DOE's acting assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Early feedback from two of the plants selected reveal that some of the DOE's recommendations can easily be implemented with quick paybacks while other projects aren't as feasible because they require high capital investments with slower returns.

The Verdigris, Okla., operations of Terra Industries Inc., a $1.9 billion fertilizer producer based in Sioux City, Iowa, is reviewing 15 recommendations made by the DOE's Energy Saving Team.

The plant applied for the audit and was selected by the DOE because it's a major user of natural gas and electricity, says plant manager Dallas Robinson. "We are looking to make sure our standards on investigating energy uses and loss are up to date," Robinson says. "For instance, one of the areas we'll be looking at is updating the specifications for insulation on steam lines."

After spending three full days at the facility in February, the DOE's team of experts identified energy-saving modifications that ranged from installing low-level heat recovery systems to implementing a coal gasification unit. The projects the company considers viable are between $3 million and $6 million, according to Robinson. Other projects, such as coal gasification, could cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" and aren't on the company's radar screen yet but might be considered in the future if energy prices continue to rise, Robinson says.

Another fertilizer plant is in the process of evaluating the DOE's recommendations. The J.R. Simplot Co.'s Lathrop, Calif., plant has used the DOE's steam-assessment tool for years to identify energy savings and expects further cost reductions after the DOE's visit. The plant produces inorganic fertilizer for the $3 billion Boise, Idaho-based food and agribusiness giant. Most of the suggestions will require an investment, but the DOE also recommended some simple maintenance tasks that are much less costly, says Ralph Medema, the engineering department manager for the Lathrop facility. For instance, the plant expects a cost savings of several thousand dollars annually by insulating steam piping throughout the facility.

The DOE estimates that typically one-third of their recommendations can be implemented at little or no cost, one-third will generate a payback in less than two years and another one-third are longer-term more capital-intensive ideas, Faulkner says.

Manufacturers that were not selected or did not meet the application deadline may still be eligible for assessments by a local DOE Industrial Assessment Center. For more information visit www1.eere.energy.gov/industry/bestpractices/iacs.html.

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