Benchmarking Utility Meters
One potential source of savings that is often is overlooked is the utility meters themselves. At relatively low cost, an owner can install independent meters to validate the actual usage of utilities such as steam, natural gas, and water against the meters that are used for billing.
In one case, a cereal manufacturer that purchased process steam from an adjacent sister plant installed an independent steam-flow meter at the entrance to the plant to verify the billings. They learned that they were being billed for up to twice as much as the volume of steam that was actually delivered.
Moreover, installation of benchmark meters shows how much it costs to run individual production lines, facilities, and operations as a whole - and in real time. For example, independent metering of two lines running side by side can reveal information about equipment reliability and the need for maintenance. Benchmark metering can also be used to identify the utility costs associated with operations at particular times of the day - and possible opportunities to reduce costs through demand-side management and off-peak usage - or in various geographic locations, both domestic and international.
Also, where it makes sense, cogeneration may be a good option for the owner. In areas of the country in which electric rates cost 4.5 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour, it is difficult to cost-justify a cogeneration system. However, in other areas of the country, notably the West, where electric rates are 15 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour, one can more readily cost justify the capital cost of cogeneration. If an owner is going to replace its power plant, it makes sense to analyze the base loads and consider whether cogeneration offers any benefits.
Start at the End
The best outcomes - and greatest savings - can be achieved when an engineering team takes an integrated approach to renewable energy, resource management, and sustainable plant design and operation, and implements best practices from the industry.
That's why it is important to start at the end; that is, to understand the owner's performance criteria and determine how to achieve them. Owners need not accept the performance that the existing systems and equipment delivers; they need the systems and equipment that deliver the performance they require. But the best-designed system won't get in the door if it doesn't deliver a realistic ROI. In the food industry, a utility savings project typically must meet or exceed the financial benchmark of a 2.5-year payback, which translates to a simple ROI of 40 percent. An analysis of an operation's processes and utility usage history often reveals opportunities to implement projects that meet this benchmark.
At a 40 percent ROI, it should be noted, a food manufacturer may be able to interest an independent performance-based contractor in funding, building, and operating a utility savings system on a shared-savings contract. Nevertheless, prudent owners still engage a consulting engineer with experience in food production to provide objective, third-party due diligence. The consultants can review the system design to ensure that it is properly designed for the application and operationally reliable.
In today's economy, more than ever, the food industry is looking for smart strategies and best practices to assure sustainable food production. Effective management of water and natural gas resources is a good place to start.