Devoting Energy to Energy Efficiency: The Role of an Energy Lead in Process Industry

Article by Gert-Jan Fien

The appointment of an energy lead at a dss+ downstream oil and gas client significantly improved energy efficiency, lowered greenhouse gas emissions and reduced energy expenditure. Gert-Jan Fien wonders why more energy-intensive industries aren’t going down the same path

WE SHOULD all now be aware that decarbonisation is an urgent requirement. At the same time, energy prices – and their variability – are causing major disruptions. As a result, industry globally is looking to reduce its dependence on energy, and fossil fuels in particular. This objective requires good energy management practices with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

At one of our downstream oil and gas clients, installing an energy lead yielded a significant improvement pipeline, focused on no- and low-cost opportunities. Energy expenditure was down 5% within 12 months of the role being fully established. Associated benefits, like lower Scope-1 and -2 GHG emissions and lower water consumption due to reduced steam venting and increased condensate return, were also noted.

However, following many decades of relatively cheap and abundant energy, it is not uncommon, even for larger organisations, to lack a dedicated energy lead (let alone an energy team) to drive concerted efforts towards better performance.

Without one or more dedicated staff, it becomes very difficult to set up the necessary data infrastructure, monitoring systems, and workflows, for managing information and initiatives. As Figure 1 shows, there is much to do, especially in energy-intensive industries, but ultimately in any facility where energy has been taken for granted.

Energy performance coordinators

In my opinion, the role of energy lead is a technical one and should not require a contract management or commercial background, even if some exposure to those might come in handy. Chemical and process engineers would be my first choice. I also prefer not to use the term energy manager – even when they have the luxury of leading a dedicated team – since they would not actually be managing “energy”, but rather data, workflows, discussions, and awareness. I think “energy performance coordinator” would be a good job title, even if it doesn’t quite trip off the tongue. Calling someone energy manager may even cause others to shirk their responsibility when we should all be involved in reducing energy consumption. Note also that the utility plant (or boiler house, or power plant) manager should not have this role. Their job is 99% about reliability; providing the right amount of power, steam, cooling, compressed air, etc at the right time.

In practice, the actual energy consumption is largely determined by plant line management and their operational needs and by issues outside the control of an energy lead. Slowing down production or sacrificing product quality to save energy, or postponing maintenance shutdowns because they are energy inefficient are not realistic options. So, what does the role entail?

The first priority for an energy lead should be to understand how much of which type of energy is used where. And preferably not just primary energies, like imported natural gas or grid power, but also “secondary” energies, like steam, hot oil, or internal fuel gas. It is important to clearly map each of these and account for most of the overall consumption.

Primary energies are normally carefully metered by suppliers for monthly billing, but you should aim to account for at least 95% of that consumption, not only to verify the billing, but also to understand where monthly variations originate. I have encountered import gas meters long overdue for recalibration, a single power meter for two companies that separated years ago, and steam purchased from neighbours at silly rates.

Secondary energy sources, like high-pressure (HP) steam, may be even more valuable per unit, due to the high-purity water involved, or may have almost zero value, as could be the case for very-low-pressure (VLP) steam, when there is an excess. Such valuations may guide your targets for balance closure; perhaps ±3% for HP and ±10% for VLP steam.

It is also advisable to continually translate energy consumptions accurately into Scope-1 and Scope-2 emissions of greenhouse gases, according to local guidelines, in support of sustainability reporting.

Once these mappings are complete, you can start thinking about how to disseminate information and improve things. For this, you will need collaboration with the various asset-operating teams, as well as other relevant disciplines in your organisation, to drive the following tasks:

Establish a single source of truth

Good and timely decisions require consistent and coherent information that people can easily access and trust. This may include enforcing a single set of units of measure and clear rules on data custody and “accounting principles”. How to account for hydrogen content in the recycled fuel gas to a hydrogen plant is a good example of this.

  • Validate any data input and act when values appear suspect. Perhaps a meter needs recalibration, or someone sent you a mistyped number
  • Make sure your balances are readily updated with actual information. This is most “easily” done by linking a purposeful model to a data historian. Where manual inputs are unavoidable, make it as easy as possible for others to share any data you rely on
  • Make sure your energy balances are consistent. For example, the total steam production should be in line with total boiler fuel consumption and power generation from turbogenerators should reflect their steam consumption. Cross-check where possible; data redundancy is a beautiful thing! I also find it very helpful to check balances when units are offline: are zeros showing where they should be?
  • Establish accurate marginal prices for utilities such as fuel gas, steam at each pressure level, steam condensate and demineralised water. Marginal prices should not include depreciation of assets, staff costs, or maintenance
  • For oil refining and certain (petro)chemical industries, be involved in the process of benchmarking against peers. The Energy Intensity Index from Solomon Associates and equivalent benchmarks from Phillip Townsend Associates all require substantial data collection, and the energy lead should coordinate this effort

Article by Gert-Jan Fien

Subject matter expert for industrial energy management

dss+ are a leading provider of operations management consulting services

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.