Until lately process industry has operated in an environment of reasonably predictable costs of energy. However, the recent turmoil in prices of natural gas and electricity is only adding to the impact of longer-term global trends in the energy markets, creating challenges to the industry.
The growing share of renewable energy sources has increased the price volatility of electricity and will continue to do that. The massive efforts towards net zero emissions in various production chains are not only triggered by government funding and global organizations, but also by the requirements of the buying customer at different stages of the supply chain. Race towards fossil-free production will continue.
Traditionally, the reaction of energy intensive companies to the increasing costs has been to improve energy efficiency. Typical cases are introduction of frequency transformers to control electrical motors, exploiting methods of heat recovery for replacing part of primary energy usage or minimizing leaks in pipelines of compressed air. In many countries public funding has been available for decades to support companies in these efforts, for example in introduction of ISO 50001 compatible management frameworks for more efficient use of energy.
This is all very fine and still on the agenda. The target of energy efficiency efforts is to decrease the amount of energy used per unit of end products. This can often be measured in GJ/ton for example in pulp and paper or other process industries. But when the problem is the price volatility, there is so much more that can and should be done in managing consumption and own production of energy in these industries. Thus, with the ongoing energy transition we can find three other areas of company energy performance that require attention, namely the performance of own energy production, procurement, and reduction in amount and cost of emissions.
We have already seen companies in process industry to introduce solar electricity production at their sites, even though this may have been more for piloting and brand building than striving for economic efficiency. As an alternative, in addition to classic maintenance improvement approaches one might also ask are we good enough in running our power plants in process industry with best possible settings - considering the energy market situation right now and day-ahead? Could it be beneficial in re-occurring situations to save own (bio)fuels and use energy of (other) renewable sources when it is cheap? Would this lower the fuel rate, measured for example in MWfuel/ton, and improve energy production performance?
This is a timing question, as are several decisions and actions in energy management: how do we plan and implement the purchase of energy together with own production and consumption? Here companies have different approaches: some are even balance responsible parties in the electricity market, while others have outsourced all their energy management tasks. But this does not have to be an all-in decision: with flexibility both in physical resources of consumption/production and own thinking, improvements in energy management performance can be found for example by participating in the TSO’s marketplace for reserve and balancing power. Could this, also as a brand measure, compete with installation of a tiny solar production unit on site? Both work in favor of increasing the share of renewable energy sources and may even have positive effect on reducing €/ton, which is the main target of efficient energy management.
The same measures can also improve the performance regarding energy production emissions: flexibility in cutting electricity consumption during peak prices and timing consumption to match low, in some cases even negative, prices can reduce the carbon footprint of energy usage, measured in kgCO2/MWh, and even save on emission allowances.
While traditional energy efficiency measures are static in nature, all other steps mentioned above are dynamic and require correct timing of energy production and consumption in energy intensive industries: performance in energy production, energy management and emissions control all can be improved with better accuracy in planning and forecasting, and flexibility in both actions and thinking. To achieve this, data is the key enabler.