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ORNL: Better Plants Program leads industry partners on sustainability journey


As the United States transitions to clean energy, the country has an ambitious goal: cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by the year 2030, if not before. One of the solutions to help meet this challenge is found at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the Better Plants Program.

For the past decade, the Department of Energy has operated Better Plants under the Better Buildings Initiative, which is designed to improve lives by driving leadership in energy innovation and partnering with public and private sectors to make the nation’s homes, commercial buildings and industrial plants more energy efficient.

The industrial component of the initiative, coordinated by ORNL, focuses on working with manufacturers and water and wastewater utilities to set long-term goals to achieve significant energy improvements. Researchers Sachin Nimbalkar, technical support lead, and Thomas Wenning, program manager for industrial energy efficiency, have steadily delivered results based on one simple guideline.

“We like to say we meet industry wherever they are on their sustainability journey,” Wenning said. “It doesn’t matter how efficient they are at the beginning of their work with us. It matters that the conversation has started, and they are walking with purpose down that pathway of improvement. Ultimately, when their energy efficiency improves, we see that costs decrease and productivity increases.”

Small changes, big impact

More than 250 companies as of 2021 have embarked on the path towards improved energy efficiency by becoming Better Plants Program partners, representing more than 3,200 facilities across all 50 states. Cumulatively, these partners have saved $8.2 billion and amassed 1.7 QBtu, or quadrillion British thermal units, in energy savings since the start of the program, as noted in the most recent progress report.

“Massive energy savings result from working with the industrial sector,” Wenning said. “The fact of the matter is you can make major impacts with just a few facilities. We have many examples where slight modifications of a process or facility have resulted in savings that are equivalent to taking thousands of homes and buildings off the grid. We have a whole range of tools and resources that we’ve built to help any industry.”

The Better Plants Program has worked with a diverse portfolio of well-known national industry names, as well as those locally owned and operated, including cement plants, steel mills, food processors and automobile manufacturers. No matter their size, the journey for each begins with the same steps.

“It all starts with helping companies set a voluntary goal to reduce their energy intensity,” he said. “We work with them to assess their current progress, help them establish meaningful baselines and tracking methodologies, identify areas to improve their internal energy management and sustainability programs. We do onsite visits to deliver training and perform an energy assessment at their facilities.”

After Better Plants assessments, Wenning and Nimbalkar have seen companies make inexpensive changes to processes that have led to big improvements in energy efficiency.

“We worked with a large food manufacturing company, for instance, that used a lot of compressed air during production, but they were using too much of it,” Nimbalkar said. “We discovered that by reducing the amount used (by) making a small tweak in the process, their air compressors didn’t have to work as hard and the energy efficiency was improved.”

Nimbalkar explained that compressed air is often one of the most expensive utilities and said that, in the future, manufacturing facilities should operate without it.

Better Plants guides partners through four core categories of benefits: recognition, to communicate partner results; peer-to-peer training, to bring industry together and share best practices; technical support, to provide employee training, resources and guidance; and research and development, to connect partners to the support available at national laboratories like ORNL.

“Our goal is to establish an ongoing relationship to continue to provide resources, and that’s as easy as giving them access to a suite of online software tools or hosting training at ORNL,” Nimbalkar said.

Online tools include MEASUR, short for Manufacturing Energy Assessment Software for Utility Reduction, which analyzes most major support systems found within manufacturing facilities, including motors, pumps, fans, process heat, steam and compressed air; and the Energy Performance Indicator Tool that tracks annual progress of energy savings, improvements and consumption.

The Better Plants team can also help industries become 50001 Ready recognized and ISO 50001 certified, signifying they have achieved the international standard for establishing, implementing, maintaining and improving their energy management system.

“One of our greatest successes happened when we worked with a small, family-owned iron and steel company with three facilities in the U.S.,” Nimbalkar said. “They committed to reducing their energy intensity by 25% in 10 years. We organized training for them, and through that, they identified savings throughout every facet of their company. As a result, they became the first iron and steel company in the nation to become ISO 50001 certified, and in May 2021, all three of their facilities became certified.”

Carbon focus

While Better Plants has always focused on either reducing or improving energy, the program emphasizes certain priorities every few years.

“For example, in 2015, we rolled out a water savings initiative, and that was the first foray into expanding our scope. Everyone was interested in the energy-water nexus. So, we jumped into water and started helping companies think about their water reduction journey,” Wenning said.

“And then, in 2019, we began the waste-reduction effort. So now you see that we’re starting to fill in more of the sustainability umbrella. We cover energy, water, waste, and now we’re expanding to include carbon as a focus,” he added.

Completing the sustainability picture by prioritizing carbon emissions makes sense, Nimbalkar said, and is the next logical step to Better Plants realizing even greater impact. “As people are developing transformative technologies in industry, they are trying to figure out how they’re going to make significant improvements in their carbon intensity.

“With Better Plants, we are giving them immediate solutions so that rather than just waiting for step changes, they can actually begin implementation. By implementing energy efficiency technologies, you can start reducing energy and carbon intensities now,” he added.

Given industrial processes are one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, focusing on that work now is critical, too. Solutions for tackling the problem will likely depend on the U.S. region in which they’re located.

We’ve got to look at the industry’s involvement in their particular region, how that area is responding to decarbonization, and then develop a plan that best fits that part of the country,” Nimbalkar said. “Our goal is to bring long-term immediate solutions for industry without having to spend a lot of money. There are logical steps and activities that can be implemented which are not a heavy strain or burden to do. The carbon goal can be achieved.”

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