Energy Conservation--The Crisis That Won't Quit

Remember the Major Contributions Control Professionals Make Satisfying Energy Demand

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As a chemical engineer, energy has been a concern of mine from Day One. Day One for me was Doc Lewis' course in Industrial Stoichiometry (10.17 in the lingo of M.I.T.). Lewis taught that, in analyzing and troubleshooting an industrial process, running mass and energy balances first ensures that you are accounting for all of the relevant variables.

Engineers, chemical and otherwise, have always regarded energy as a key concern and its efficient use is part of the engineering ethos. Thermodynamics, the bane of many engineering curricula, is a professional act of contrition.

The general citizenry of the U.S., Congress and executive branch, became aware of energy when the oil supply became slightly constricted and caused Energy Crisis I in 1973. By the latter half of 1979 Energy Crisis II had come to town and a huge Federal bureaucracy was created to deal with the energy emergency. To many, it seems, the ways in which laws are constructed and administered is a black art comprehensible only to the initiated elite. The laws governing energy supply and distribution converted a tight supply situation into a major shortage. You may recall the state Set-Asides, giving Governors control over an important share of the gasoline supply,“which ultimately became a disaster of Herculean proportions. Fortunately, the Energy Crisis faded away soon after President Reagan decontrolled the price of crude oil upon taking office in 1981.

While the crisis faded into the sunset, the same can't be said for the Department of Energy (DoE). Which, like most federal offices, once created, have something apparently close to eternal life. The EIA (Energy Information Administration within the DoE) recently posted (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/mecs/iab98/index.html) energy consumption data on seven industries said to be the most prodigious energy consumers: aluminum, chemicals, forest products (pulp & paper and lumber), glass, metal casting, petroleum and steel.

With the single exception of metal casting, all are process industries, all are important users of process control technologies (instruments, controls, control and communication systems) and employ of process control professionals.

The aluminum industry remains close to my heart, as my associate George Dirth and I during the 60s called on aluminum smelters from Troutdale, Ore. to Chalmette, La. (and many places in between) in selling IBM 1710s to monitor pot voltage-drops. By detecting impending inflections in these extremely noisy signals (roughly 150 per production line), anode-effects could be minimized without running toward the more serious consequences of overfeeding (sick pots). The then new technology of online digital computers, as rudimentary as they were in those early days, enabled aluminum plant operators to go from hunches and guesswork to quantitative management of the process, and along the wa, realize major reductions in the energy consumed per pound of metal produced. To my way of thinking an ingot aluminum is the closet you can get to electricity in solid form.

 

"It's Important to remember the major contribution process control professionals make satisfying society's demand for abundant supplies of energy."

 

According to DoE, the U.S. aluminum industry produces 22 billion pounds of metal annually from 23 smelters operated by 12 companies. The industry's gross shipments total about $28 billion annually with an energy bill of $2.3 billion. Smelting alone consumes well over 100 trillion watt-hours of electricity every year. Energy management is clearly a vital function within this industry. Computerizing the smelting step has freed up about 2 million kW of capacity nationwide for use by consumers.

The EIA's web site offers a veritable cornucopia of facts on industrial conservation practices. Who's doing how much of what. It's important to remember, however, the major contribution process control professionals continue to make satisfying society's demand for abundant supplies of energy and the goods and services it produces, while minimizing the infrastructure needed to provide it.

The chemicals industry, second largest energy consumer, encompasses approximately 9,500 companies operating more than 13,000 facilities. The chemical industry's annual shipments are valued at over $425 billion. The forest products industry, third largest energy consumer, operates 16,439 facilities. Broken out that's 4,676 for pulp & paper, and 11,663 lumber. Even though the forest products industry (with annual shipments of close to $250 billion) self-generates close to 40% of its energy from waste wood products and pulping liquor recovery, it still ranks third in purchased energy.

So, the next time you attend a public hearing on a proposal to build of a new plant in someone's environmentally sensitive back yard, think about reminding the developers to hire more process control engineers at the plants they already own. Maybe with this added capability, they may not need the new capacity, thus saving that precious piece of wetland for the mosquitos.

Terrence K. McMahon

McMahon Technology Associates

135 Fort Lee Road

Leonia, NJ 07605

Tel: 201-585-2050

Fax: 201-585-1968

Mcmahontec135@aol.com

 

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