Don’t generate energy before you generate a plan

The matter of generating energy is well-engineered and well-understood. How we use energy, and how much of it we use, on the other hand, is still mostly a mystery for most end users.

08/11/2011


They built a solar farm in Smyrna, TN this year. That’s not extraordinary news, although it doesn’t happen every day, and certainly not over six acres of otherwise prime real estate in the growing hub that the greater Nashville areas has become. Its look is almost artistic – gleaming rows of solar panels angles to catch the Tennessee sun starting at about 8 a.m. most days – just about the same time workers at Schneider Electric’s Smyrna plant head inside to use some of that solar energy to build medium-voltage switchgear and motor starters.

There were many reasons Schneider Electric put this solar farm into the land at Smyrna. There are tax credits involved, and a chance to do some onsite R+D for its own product line that will deliver solar inverter technology to more plants and buildings and institutions that want to choose solar-generated energy for part of their energy equation. They want to cut their own utility bill for the operation at Smyrna, and by generating and selling energy back to the Tennessee Valley Authority they can create a small cash flow for themselves.

Any manufacturer looking at this story might be tempted to start putting pencil to paper and figuring how much capital it might take to build its own solar farm, whether there were any tax credits or co-generation opportunities in such a venture. Perhaps a group of small manufacturers in an industrial park might be of a mind to pool their resources to create a sort of co-op solar farm that could serve the power needs for the group – organic energy farming, if you will.

And these are all good ideas, worthy of further examination and contemplation. There’s one aspect of the Smyrna experiment, however, that bares review: The solar farm was not the beginning of the plants’ energy management efforts. Not even close.

Energy management has been a core principle at Smyrna for years. They actively measure power usage by machine, by shift and by process. They’ve empowered the workers to be a player in the energy management effort. They’ve received corporate direction and corporate support for treating energy as a managed cost rather than a monthly bill.

Building a solar farm is an event – and Schneider Electric celebrated that event on July 25, 2011, with all the usual speeches, ribbon-cutting, and tours that accompany such an announcement. Energy management goes far beyond building a solar farm. It’s not an event. It’s a process plant manager Michael DiNapoli and his team at Smyrna practice every day.

Generating energy is a relatively simple process in this day and age. You can burn coal or refine oil or build windmills or solar farms. The matter of generating energy is well-engineered and well-understood. How we use energy, and how much of it we use, on the other hand, is still mostly a mystery for most end users.

We cannot afford to operate like that any longer. Those looking for a quick fix, like a new solar farm, are starting in the middle of a long, tedious and absolutely necessary journey toward energy management. It begins with knowing how much energy you are consuming, and more important, where in your facility you consume it. It takes an energy audit to start, and then constant measurement and monitoring of energy to understand where the problems are. That audit should extend beyond electrical energy to areas including oil and gas consumption and compressed air usage.

It takes a change in our energy attitude, and it takes a willingness to spend capital funds today to preserve capital tomorrow. We have to manage energy for the right reasons. There was a time when being green meant environmentally driven to the exclusion of all other factors. That’s no longer practical, or necessary.

Green is the color of the energy movement (and Schneider Electric’s corporate color as well) but it’s also the color of money. If your motivation is environmentally green, great. Just don’t lose sight of that other green. And if your motivation is monetary green, that’s great too. Just don’t lose sight of the other green.

The most important driver in all of this is to start with an understanding of what your energy usage is and where the opportunities are for savings. The issue is not in generating more energy. First, you need to generate a plan.



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