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Slashing energy costs


In the manufacturing plant, in the office or on the road, reducing energy consumption saves cash and the environment

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

Turn the lights off when you leave the room. Shut off the television when you’re not watching it. Shut off the hot water faucet while washing the dishes.

All these lessons we learn as children drive home an energy management conscience that carries through to adulthood. No matter how insignificant the energy savings that resulted from those seemingly trivial actions as young children, they set the table for the cost reduction strategies our businesses can adopt related to efficient use of energy.

Energy efficiency initiatives for business run the gamut from lighting and equipment automation to efforts to recover heated air and water. In between, a host of other day-to-day activities like the lessons we learned as children help from draining additional electrons off the grid – and it’s all working.

Statewide electrical use from public and investor-owned utilities declined month over month from 2015 to 2016, according to the most recent data available from Wisconsin’s State Energy Office in Madison. While it’s just a snapshot in time, the data illustrates that electrical use doesn’t have to increase simply because productivity increases.

Hundreds of northeast Wisconsin businesses play a role in actively reducing their own energy consumption, and a handful even build their business models around helping other businesses cut energy use, trim costs and build environmental credit without having to skimp on the quality of their operations.

The following are a few examples to consider that – while perhaps illustrated on a much larger scale – might offer some ideas your business can borrow to reduce energy costs in the plant, in the office or on the road.

Pledge to lower energy use

Fortune 400 heavy-duty truck manufacturer Oshkosh Corp. signed up for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Plants program two years ago, committing to reduce their energy intensity by 25 percent over 10 years at the company’s U.S. operations. In that regard, the company set a goal of reducing its energy use by 2.5 percent year over year across all of its operations, said Kevin Tubbs, senior director of sustainability and environmental affairs for Oshkosh Corp.

From its 2014 fiscal year to last year, Oshkosh Corp. reduced energy use at its U.S. plants by 7 percent through various strategies. One particular project implemented at one of its defense segment facilities in Oshkosh recirculated filtered air back into the plant rather than exhausting it outdoors, reducing the need to heat frigid winter air. The upgrade yielded annual energy savings of more than 130,000 kilowatt-hours and an annual cost savings of nearly $137,000.

“As the old saying goes, you manage what you measure, and we’ve been measuring it and trying to get the information out in front of our people,” Tubbs said. “Energy is certainly an area where you can get an environment benefit and an economic benefit from the same initiative. It’s smart for the business and smart for the environment.”

Numerous other projects help drive energy savings as well. Tubbs said much of the heated air generated by compressors in its plants is now reused to help maintain a warmer climate during winter months. At its Pierce facilities in the Fox Cities which manufacture fire and rescue equipment, the company introduced variable speed drives to the fans on its painting lines to more efficiently manage the energy used to restart the fans from the “off” position.

For these and other efforts, Oshkosh Corp. was named one of 14 winners of the 2016 Excellence in Energy Efficiency Award from Wisconsin Focus on Energy.

And while these one-time initiatives can shed a lot of energy use in one fell swoop, other ongoing efforts can shave off a kilowatt-hour here and a kilowatt-hour there.

“You’ve got project-related energy savings (such as the examples mentioned above), but then you’ve got the way that you operate and the low-cost and no-cost energy efficiency practices, too,” Tubbs stated.

As an example, the company holds events it calls “treasure hunts” at its facilities where a team of employees walk through the plant with the specific intent of identifying small examples of wasted energy – equipment still running when it’s not being used, lights turned on when not in use, or air leaks on a compressor that haven’t been repaired or reported. Tubbs said these events involve a cross-section of the company’s workforce and help reinforce a culture of sustainability.

“We have a limited about of people who have energy or environmental or sustainability in their job title – there’s just a few of us that have that in our job description,” Tubbs said. “So in order to really make it work, you’ve got to communicate with the rest of the workforce and try and engage as many people as you can.”

In a good light

Upstart Manitowoc-based LED (light-emitting diode) lighting manufacturer energybank built its company on the concept that businesses can spend far less on their electrical bills for lighting while producing a better quality of light and reducing the maintenance required to replace burned out bulbs.

Company founder and CEO Neal Verfuerth – who cultivated compact fluorescent lighting manufacturer Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc from the ground floor to a publicly-traded company with $120 million in annual sales – has more than 60 lighting patents to his name. His latest venture into designing and commercializing LED lighting fixtures for commercial offices and retail, warehousing, manufacturing facilities and exterior outdoor lots took nearly six years to develop from concept to formally launching energybank’s products to customers in the second half of 2015.

Currently, LED-based lighting holds less than a 5 percent share of the overall market for lighting, Verfuerth said, but industry experts expect the predominance of LED to grow significantly as technologies continue to come down in cost and offer greater ease of installation. It’s become a revolutionary shift in illuminating living and work spaces.

“It’s very much like when we went from oil lanterns to light bulbs,” Verfuerth said.

The company’s highly-touted model T product – already the winner of the 2016 Governor’s New Product Award from Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers and 2016 Product of the Year Award from Plant Engineering magazine – has been slashing utility bills for its customers requiring outdoor lighting, providing a much higher quality of light while at the same time being “dark sky compliant” to nearly eliminate light pollution during nighttime hours.

Energybank installed its model T product on the outdoor lots at Kolosso Automotive’s College Avenue dealership in Appleton in early 2015, which has since saved the auto dealer 78 percent of its previous energy use. What’s better, explained general manager Ryan Kolosso, is the quality of light is far better to highlight the features of its merchandise to prospective shoppers walking the dealership’s lot after dark. energybank’s model T throws 70 footcandles – a measurement of light photometry – on the shiny hoods and windshields of Kolosso’s new vehicles as compared to just 20 footcandles with the exterior lighting it previously used on its lot.

“The illumination is exceptional – especially compared to other types of fixtures we compared them with,” Kolosso said. “Even our customers mention that the cars really ‘pop’ from the lot.”

While customers need to spend some dough purchasing new fixtures to replace those older, inefficient lights they’ve been using for years, energybank’s Verfuerth said the average energy savings achieved by installing one of the company’s model T lighting fixtures provides a return on investment in just two to three years. Everything beyond that timeframe is a penny saved after penny saved.

As energybank’s model T product captures high praise from industry innovation leaders during the early part of 2016, the company also manufacturers energy efficient LED lighting fixtures for commercial office and retail spaces as well as for warehousing and manufacturing facilities of all sizes.

“The architectural ThinLine (product which integrates into existing ceiling tiles in commercial offices and retail stores) was just released a few months ago, and it’s already taken off with customers,” Verfuerth said.

Opening up a new frontier of energy management for businesses, the company’s Genius IoT (Internet of Things) product launching later this year will allow customers to synchronize production processes machine to machine, generating real-time energy data from each source of use. The product promises to allow customers to take control of their energy cost allocation.

Verfuerth indicated energybank is working with a software development firm from the Fox Valley to finalize Genius IoT and expects to have it on the market later in 2016.

On the open road

It’s true many energy efficiency initiatives for business revolve around facility and equipment management to cut back on electric, natural gas and water use. Yet, for some companies the greatest use of energy comes from their fleet of vehicles out on the roadway.

For those businesses, Green Bay-based Breakthrough Fuel provides logistics management to help move freight as efficiently as possible between destinations, using a carefully managed strategy of seagoing ships, rail and over-the-road trucks. In doing so, Breakthrough Fuel not only attempts to identify the least expensive fuel prices for its clients, but also works to reduce both consumption and emissions associated with its clients’ transportation fuel, said Daniel Cullen, director of applied knowledge for the firm.

“We always tell our clients ‘the best gallon of diesel is the gallon of diesel you don’t have to buy,’” Cullen said.

Breakthrough Fuel’s own sustainability report recently issued for 2016 indicated freight transported by its clients in 2015 traveled 7.1 miles for every gallon of fuel consumed, a more than 20 percent increase from the 5.8 miles its clients claimed for the same metric in 2010. But besides helping clients efficiently consume more traditional fuels like diesel, it also advises transporters on the potential to use alternative fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG) or renewable natural gas (RNG) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“That’s important to many of our clients,” Cullen said. “We have a number of clients with very aggressive emissions-reduction goals.”

In some cases, those clients are forced into emissions reductions efforts. In 2015, California extended its “cap-and-trade” regulations placed on manufacturers to the transportation industry as well, limiting the amount of greenhouse gas over-the-road trucking companies can emit without the penalty of having to purchase carbon credits. The law doesn’t just apply to California companies, Cullen said. Any carrier moving goods through the state is subject to purchasing transportation emissions credits, which can cost as much as 12 cents per gallon of traditional fossil fuels.

Breakthrough Fuel advises clients on the prospect of converting their fleets of vehicles to CNG to determine if it makes financial sense. Vehicles equipped with CNG and RNG combustion engines had been an attractive alternative to traditional diesel combustion engines when diesel prices hovered around the $4 per gallon mark, since natural gas has been in abundance and generally cost less than $2 per gallon.

In the roughly 16 months since traditionally petroleum-based fuels have come down in cost, CNG has become less attractive financially in the short term, yet it still offers a much cleaner burning fuel with far fewer emissions, Cullen said. In the long term, converting a fleet of vehicles to CNG or RNG can offer greater predictability in a budget because costs are generally less volatile.

“Natural gas prices are extraordinarily steady compared with diesel fuel commodity pricing,” Cullen said. “Natural gas strategies are somewhat of a hedge against the market, if you will.”