Seeing Clearly on a Not-So-Clear Day

August 1, 2011

Anyone who has ever been responsible for the energy efficiency of an industrial, commercial, or institutional facility has undoubtedly at some point experienced frustration at not being able to get funding for energy efficiency improvements. Even what seem to be obvious “no brainers” like insulation or steam trap installation and maintenance often go without adequate funding. Those familiar with that frustration may enjoy this story of how I stumbled into getting funding for insulation.

Energy efficiency has long been important at Dow’s Specialty Monomers site in Deer Park, Texas (formerly Rohm and Haas). This site, which has operated for more than 62 years, is on the Houston Ship Channel approximately 22 miles east of downtown Houston. The site is over 900 acres and employs more than 800 people. It hosts as many as 11 plants, many of which are highly exothermic, so it has a complicated steam distribution and management system.

An energy team has existed at the site since 1997, looking at a variety of methods to reduce the site’s energy consumption, including capital projects, process improvements, management systems, and other innovative approaches. I took over leadership of the site’s energy team in early 2000 and managed it for about 8 years.

One of the innovations we adopted was an integrated energy management system called Visual MESA sold commercially by Soteica. It is a highly accurate thermodynamic model of the site’s energy users, and one of the features we implemented is a real-time energy intensity monitor.

Energy intensity, a measure of a manufacturer’s efficiency, is calculated simply by dividing the energy used to make a product by the amount of product being made. A typical unit for energy intensity is Btu per pound of product. At the Deer Park site, the energy intensity was calculated monthly using energy and production accounting data before the implementation of the Visual MESA system. Visual MESA gave the site the ability to look at the amount of energy being used at any given moment and the pounds of product being produced at that moment, and then calculate a real-time energy intensity.

While the system was newly implemented and was still being fine tuned, a number of engineers were watching the Visual MESA screen one summer day when a typical Gulf Coast heavy rainstorm rolled in. As the torrential rain hit bare, uninsulated pipe throughout the site and soaked insulation missing lagging, the real-time energy intensity more than doubled!

The effect was striking. As the engineers talked excitedly about the results, a small crowd gathered around the screen. A high-level manager happened to be walking by and wondered what all the excitement was about. When the information display was explained to him, he said he had never seen anything that more clearly showed the value of insulation or the importance of properly maintaining it.

Not long afterward, I asked this manager for funding for an insulation upgrade project. I’ll never know for sure, but I believe his experience watching the energy intensity display a few days earlier played a big part in his granting me the full amount.

After more than 30 years working with industrial energy, I believe that the easiest, lowest risk, most secure return projects are very often the simplest: insulation upgrades and maintenance, steam trap maintenance, and steam leak repairs. Unfortunately, we rarely have a chance to show management the effects as clearly as I did that summer day in Houston.