Manufacturing plants are ripe for energy improvements, but company efforts can stall without a proper analysis of facilities to figure out where best to focus.
For the last few years, the U.S. Department of Energy has helped numerous U.S. companies analyze and reduce their energy use through its Better Buildings, Better Plants program.
"We only have so many resources to do these analyses," said Al Hildreth, energy manager at General Motors, a Better Plants partner. "And this is an extra set of resources to identify additional opportunities."
Every company that joins Better Plants makes a voluntary pledge to reduce its energy intensity by 25 percent over 10 years.
When it launched the program in 2010, DOE started with some of the industrial firms it had previously worked with. "We turned to a lot of those companies we had existing relationships with," Defontaine said.
Since then, other companies have joined, either approaching DOE on their own or finding out about the program through DOE outreach. The program recently added its 118th company partner, International Paper.
All together, 1,400 manufacturing facilities -- representing 6 percent of the U.S.’s energy footprint -- are now involved in Better Plants, said Andre Defontaine, project manager for the program.
In 2012, partner companies achieved an average energy-intensity improvement of 3.15 percent, putting them ahead of the annual improvement needed to just meet the 25 percent goal, which is 2.5 percent per year.
A major component of working toward the 25 percent goal is for companies to determine their baseline energy intensity and track and report annual changes.
In turn, the DOE helps companies set up systems for tracking energy use data and metrics, analyze data, set baselines and create plans. Companies also gain access to software tools and other technical resources.
"The first thing that companies need and where we invest most of our efforts is helping them get their arms around the metrics," Defontaine said. "Some companies do join the program with a tracking system in place. Many others aren't tracking energy efficiency because they haven't had a real need to before."
Next page: How GM improved its energy intensity 13 percent
GM is one example of a Better Plants company that’s ahead of the curve. The 28 facilities it runs that have gone through the DOE's energy surveys have achieved a cumulative 13 percent improvement in energy intensity.
For GM, the DOE's analytical services have identified about $20 million in savings that could come from energy conservation activities, Hildreth said. So far, GM has implemented activities that represent about $7 million of that.
Most of GM's work has focused on three areas: HVAC systems, compressors and pumping. The DOE's analysis has helped GM's plants see where they can make each of those operations run more efficiently, Hildreth said.
Last year, the DOE started offering on-site trainings, holding about a dozen around the U.S. GM hosted one of these trainings.
"These are designed to impart hands-on, technical expertise at the plant level," Defontaine said. An instructor goes to the plant, spends a few days there and focuses on a specific system that uses energy. Companies that host trainings are asked to invite representatives from elsewhere to attend.
The training GM hosted focused on the DOE's energy efficiency surveys, and GM brought in suppliers and local companies to learn how to use some of the DOE's energy tools.
Because the industrial sector can be host to a large range of technological improvements and energy efficiency improvements, Defontaine said the DOE focuses less on specific recommendations and more on educating partners. "We try to give them the skills so they can make decisions on new technologies," he said.