October 2007

Automation translates measurement, control

By Jacob Jackson

The high fashion of eco-friendliness is inescapable.
 
Energy summits around the world debate our impact on the earth; news headlines champion ways to be more conscious of energy consumption; and the building industry has adopted standards for managing environmentally friendly practices and sustainability in building. 

Moreover, in spite of the politics of global warming, conserving resources satisfies all the tenets of basic economics: If it costs less to make, maintain, or use, it makes for a bigger margin.

So how do the economics of conservation affect automation in the corporate environment?  Automation guru Béla Lipták said almost 30 years ago that we could save 50% of our energy by tuning process loops correctly. In practice, the automation world ignored him. 

Tuning and maintenance are labor-intensive tasks that cost organizations more money than just letting the process go. While there are notable exceptions-pharmaceuticals, food, and other highly regulated industries-energy costs have historically been so low, it was cheaper for companies to waste energy than to hire people to monitor processes. 

Now, with energy costs soaring, the corporate mentality of accepting unnecessary waste is flagging, and managing processes to conserve energy and keep costs low is coming into vogue. 

"Intelligent" buildings and processes, which use technology to increase safety and improve efficiency, allow users to decide which resources to use based on how they will affect energy consumption.  Energy management uses effective and proven technologies to reduce consumption, including instruments to measure the effect of all the components, controls to conserve or even eliminate energy use, and real-time feedback so clients can see how their actions affect energy consumption. 

Reduce the energy drain 

With energy costs rising and eco-awareness gaining popularity, the availability of accurate data and evidence is crucial for clients to make informed decisions about their energy management. 

Using a three-step process of measurement, control, and reporting, it is possible to assemble a realistic management plan and implement it effectively. 

Jack Welch, GE's former chief executive, said, "You can't control what you don't measure." Yet accurate measurement is the least likely step to see effective implementation. 

An April American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers article reported variable refrigerant flow appeared to save energy through "subtle energy efficiencies," but there were no tested ratings available for the new system. 

What motivation does a company have to replace something in its process or building if it has no measurement of what is causing or reducing the energy drain? 

The second step after measurement is control. It is fundamental to management. Automation is control. If one wing of a building does not need lights for a particular period, there must be a way to turn off that wing easily. 

On a larger process, that may mean finding unique ways of subdividing the building or wing. However, it also involves cost consciousness regarding how discrete we make the pieces. 

Finally, reporting consumption results may be the most important step of the energy management process. Companies must know their effect on consumption to change institutional habits. 

The widespread lack of measurement, control, and reporting has long crippled organizations' ability to monitor processes, but companies have recently begun to understand the fundamental importance of how managing processes and energy consumption can influence a company's finances. 

As automation providers, we need to make available the solution we have promised for years. We can now realistically offer intelligent processes. We can and must show clients how their decisions affect the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacob Jackson (jjackson@waveguide.com) is a Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and a senior member of ISA. He works as a control systems engineer at Waveguide Consulting in Atlanta.ees.