The price of energy is one of those shackling costs of doing business: you pay what the man tells you to pay. If you need to consume bunches of energy when energy costs the most, too bad. That’s just the way it is.

But does it have to be? What if a meat or poultry plant could buy most or even all its energy needs from a utility provider only during off-peak periods when per-kilowatt charges are at their lowest? What if new energy efficiencies were found through better management of energy usage for existing equipment and technology? What if a plant knew not just its energy consumption but also the state of its production equipment on a real-time basis?

That’s the idea behind Powerit, Solutions, an automated energy load management system that allows a plant to reduce energy costs through intelligent demand control, demand response and energy efficiency. The system integrates a plant’s existing energy conservation efforts, including any alternative-power sources the operation may be using, with tight, close, comprehensive data collection and management to take advantage of off-peak energy pricing.

Maximize competitiveness, minimize risk

“Most plants have already done some basic energy-conservation stuff, but energy costs are still number three or four on a plant’s list of highest costs of operation,” says Bob Zak, Powerit’s president and general manager for North America. “But competition is just as strong as it ever was, if not more so. So what I really want to do as a plant manager is ramp up my production at the same time I want to control costs. Those are conflicting goals. The business environment is more competitive, but becoming more competitive increases my cost of doing business, especially in terms of energy.”

Zak explains that 10 years ago, energy utilities tended to charge industrial customers a flat rate, and companies could easily budget for this fixed cost. But now utilities use real-time pricing to charge higher rates during peak hours. For an operation such as a meat or poultry plant, with constant high energy needs due to refrigeration and, typically, 16 hours of production in a 24-hour day, peak energy rates can quickly create a black hole into which profits disappear. “If I’m managing a plant, the question I’m asking myself now is, How do I minimize my risks from an electricity standpoint?”

Powerit is both a hardware and software system. Temperature sensors, data-collection devices and controllers are installed to measure as much energy-relevant information as possible; the controllers communicate with existing PLCs, refrigeration controls, etc.. The hardware also includes a web-server so that the energy data isn’t loaded on top of company computers already stuffed with information. “The whole key to this is boiling everything down so that it’s measurable, repeatable and reliable,” says Zak. “If it’s not repeatable, you can’t take advantage of the saving. One bad month can offset several good months.”

If a plant uses on-site alternative energy sources such as a windmill or solar panels, or, in colder regions, takes advantage of outside ambient temperatures during winter months, the Powerit system manages those sources so they not only provide maximum savings but also take best advantage of opportunities to sell home-grown energy back to the utility. “When a plant already has some energy sources of its own up and running, it shows that management is thinking about this progressively. What we can do is make these kinds of energy initiatives more efficient,” comments Zak.

He admits Powerit isn’t the cheapest program available, and the cost of the system will vary by plant depending on an operation’s degree of automation, the number of new temperature sensors and other devices that have to be installed, and whether or not the plant is already taking advantage of solar and/or wind power. While he’s reluctant to make a hard-line promise for return on investment, Zak says that Powerit’s typical ROI is 18 months or less. “That’s what we shoot for – and that’s without any incentives from the utility that may be available for additional savings,” he describes. “From a pure investment standpoint, we tend to hold ‘green’ and energy investments to a higher standard. The problem is, ROI is usually formulated on a production model. But for us, ROI is the whole basis of why we’d work with a facility. The whole point is to help a facility gain control of its energy costs so that they become not the third- or fourth-highest costs of doing business anymore but somewhere much further down the list.”

One bad hot day

At Amy’s Kitchen, a processor of organically certified entrees and convenience foods based in California, a main breaker failure on a hot day, caused by too much demand from coolers, caused the company to temporarily shut down some refrigeration units if outside temperatures exceeded a certain point, and while safety and quality wasn’t compromised by this solution, it was time-consuming and very labor-intensive and could not be fine-tuned. Powerit installed energy management hardware and software, an auto-demand box to communicate with the local utility, a wireless interface, and energy and temperature monitoring and reporting software and equipment. The system interfaced with and optimized the energy loads of blast freezers, coolers, evaporators, glycol chillers, blowers, pumps, battery chargers, and the compressor for Amy’s Kitchen’s spiral freezer. Before the Powerit installation, Amy’s Kitchen was consuming an average 1,253 killowatt hours per month; that demand dropped to an average 1,040 kw per month after the installation, and the ROI for the company was six months. Other customers include Foster Farms, Frito Lay, Gallo Wineries, JR Simplot, Del Mar Food Products, P&O Cold Storage, Anchor Warehouse and Bonita Packing Co., among several others.

Powerit came to the U.S. market from Sweden, where the system was developed to help manufacturers better manage the extremely high energy costs typical in Scandinavia. Powerit Solutions in North America is wholly independent of the founding company.

“A lot of people realize they don’t know enough about energy management, so they hire a consultant,” says Zak. “We’re not consultants. You don’t pay us and then we figure it out, telling you what you have to spend to fix the problem. We work with the plant upfront to figure it out together in order to create the biggest opportunity for efficient energy management.”