Can process automation increase energy efficiency?

Improving plant productivity and effectiveness allows plants to produce the same amount of product with fewer resources.

Energy efficiency is a fundamental element in the journey toward a sustainable future. As global energy demand continues to grow to meet the needs and aspirations of people across the globe, actions to increase energy efficiency are essential. But no serious energy efficiency program can be designed and deployed without taking into consideration actions in the process/manufacturing industries sector.

In fact, heavy industry (manufacturing) is the single largest energy consuming sector in the world. Taking the US as a reference, process industries like oil and gas, mining, pulp and paper, and chemicals are the most energy-intensive.

Optimizing energy utilization is of paramount importance in the industrial sector. From a profitability perspective, energy represents the most relevant operating expense in many industrial productions, hence an effective usage of energy represents a great opportunity in any cost-reduction-oriented policy.

Answering the question

The industrial community has understandably focused on improving energy efficiency mainly in electrical components and equipment, which is basically low-hanging fruit in the quest to quickly reduce energy costs. However, as quantified by the International Energy Agency, acting on process thermodynamics (steam systems, energy recovery, increased recycling) can more than double the potential efficiency recovery and consequent cost reduction. And this is the area where process automation has a lot to say.

Process automation can contribute to improving the energy efficiency of industrial production plants in many ways. Implementing better monitoring, control and optimization strategies improves energy performance directly, through reduced waste, and indirectly, through better maintenance practices that help to prevent an increase in energy use due to plant downtime and the resulting startup and shutdown processes, as well as defective products.

Every plant manager’s dream may come true!

A modern industrial plant is an extremely complex system that can be run over an almost innumerable range of operating conditions; achieving optimum efficiency is the dream of every plant manager. This dream is a never-ending pursuit to be continuously executed and monitored, using reliable real-time process data.

The positive impact of advanced automation strategies on energy efficiency and business bottom line has already been proven in many industrial plants. An example is the petrochemical complex in Termoli, Italy, which produces advanced materials and is characterized by complex chemical processes, controlled by more than 500 feedback control loops. Manually re-tuning such a large number of loops would require six to eight months of highly-skilled (and rarely available) technicians.

After installing an Advanced Process Control Solution to provide control loop optimization and monitoring, a single engineer was able to re-tune the whole plant in just three weeks. A final assessment certified that not only was the production more stable and reliable but the plant’s overall consumption of methane was reduced by more than 5%, with consequent positive impact on profitability and emissions!

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About the author

Nunzio Bonavita

I'm Business Development Manager for the ABB Measurement Products in Italy. I am the author or co-author of more than 50 published technical papers. Since 2009 I've been the Contract Professor at University of Genova.
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