Easing the squeeze of energy costs

Rising fuel prices are forcing water companies to focus on energy management - and they have plenty of scope - says John Gooday, business leader responsible for co-ordinating the water and wastewater activities at Rockwell Automation

The rise in global energy prices puts a very difficult squeeze on water companies, which face increasing energy bills while being regulated strictly in terms of the price that they can charge the consumer. With the volatility of global energy supply and the increase in demand from developing economies, the trend looks to be set to continue for the foreseeable future.

In the water sector this means that companies must look closely at controlling or reducing energy costs to mitigate the rise and avoid being squeezed out of profitability altogether. There are a variety of ways to address energy expenditure and other variable costs and those companies that use the current climate as a catalyst to improve their energy management can be greener, leaner and more sustainable for years to come.

While energy may traditionally have been seen as an overhead, it should now be managed and optimised as a resource. The shift in attitude needs to be sponsored at a corporate level, but pervade into the thoughts and practices of the whole business. Nominating a Water Air Gas Electricity & Steam (WAGES) champion or team within the business can help spearhead an awareness programme for improved managing, monitoring and optimising energy use.

It is important to look at energy costs holistically as the permutations of price rises are evident in many ways. From the petrol to take an engineer to a remote site for routine maintenance, to the energy costs of powering huge water pumps, as well as the fuel prices for hauling sludge to landfill, or chemicals to a treatment works; it is only when considering every point at which energy is used, both up and down the supply chain that the effect of the continued rise in pricing can be appreciated.

In recent years even the weather has contributed to larger energy bills as extreme weather patterns result in the need to pump more water than under normal circumstances. However, today's control and automation systems and management tools can help to monitor the balances of profitability by constantly reviewing energy costs to the business alongside other business costs, both fixed and variable, to help adopt the most efficient business model.

Such systems are becoming more of a necessity. There are many companies in the UK water industry that are classed as 'data rich, but information poor', which for many years have put in intelligent devices and now need to unlock that intelligence with management and automation control systems. Real-time data is at the heart of energy usage reductions across the system. The real-time data that intelligent devices can provide allows for realtime communication between plant devices and business systems. It is the joining-up of these two sides of operations that provides an opportunity for significant energy and efficiency savings to be made.

Understanding energy use through power monitoring, which can mean a device attached to a power cable used by the equipment or area of the plant, or substation, can be an important step to reducing consumption. From this information, an energy profile can be produced as well as peak usage and trending power usage data collated.

By using the power profile to manage systems, the energy efficiency of drives can be optimised and systems can be switched off when not required rather than being constantly on which is usual in the absence of such monitoring. Monitoring can also encompass high-level reporting across an extended infrastructure. Any data anomalies between similar units and processes within the entire infrastructure can help to identify efficient and less efficient systems and can be used to help discover and adopt best practices or spot and troubleshoot potential problem areas.

Real-time data has further advantages for predictive maintenance and condition based monitoring, particularly for rotating devices such as motors and pumps. Realtime, actual information from the device can be used to determine the amount of wear to which it has been subjected. This means that a specific pump on a specific motor which might ordinarily be due for a check up from an engineer every six months if operated constantly at a certain level could be serviced after a year if the real-time, actual use data showed it had been subjected to half the wear. Though simplistic, this example shows a saving which could be particularly pertinent for remote equipment common to the water industry.

The collated, centralised information from the assets can also be used to plan maintenance strategically and can be automated, with engineers receiving an automatically generated message to check a certain pump, on a particular motor on a particular date due to known actual workload experienced. When applied across the whole infrastructure this saving in labour and travel costs can be extensive. Rich diagnostic data from remote equipment may also help determine the nature of repairs required in the event of a system failing or running less efficiently.

This can often result in single visit solutions, rather than a first diagnostic visit being followed by a further visit to address the problems identified in the first visit. The benefit of this is not merely a reduction in associated energy expenses, but also in requisite staff hours and downtime.

Technology may offer solutions beyond automation, control and management systems as well. Rockwell Automation always actively seeks ways to help make its customers more competitive and their businesses more sustainable. Through a recent strategic partnership with Ireland based SCFI (see WWT Ireland, February 2011) the company has helped bring to market an innovative solution to onsite management of wastewater sludge which would previously have incurred expensive landfill costs as well as the associated haulage fuel expenses for moving it to landfill.

The SCFI unit uses Super Critical Water Oxidation which results in almost 100% solubility for gases and organic compounds. The process is carbon neutral and a standard sized unit would return the outlay investment in five to six years and then save money year on year after that. The reduced carbon emissions compared to incineration or transport for landfill could also prove to be very important for water companies seeking to comply with the Europe's strict Carbon Reduction Commitments.

For some companies there are alternative green energy options that can also provide an excellent return on investment in the light of increasing energy costs. Solar or wind power could even prove to be a source of income in certain cases when there are times of power production outstripping usage and the company becoming a net energy provider, sending power back to the grid.

Companies that look at energy cost pressures as a positive catalyst can often turn the situation to a competitive advantage. We have found for example, that the majority of our clients across industry that have put in a power and energy monitoring solution have seen a payback on capital expenditure within the first year of use. In fact, energy consumption can be reduced by anything from 5-25% in our experience. The year-on-year savings for forward thinking companies that take this option can cushion their business against the rising costs of energy for many years to come.

Mitigation of the rising cost of energy must lie with a progressive attitude to improving energy management and a reduced reliance on traditional energy sources as they become scarcer and global demand grows. However, for companies that are actively seeking alternatives there exist various methods and solutions that can keep them competitive and sustainable as well as greener, 'leaner' and able to grow.

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