Rising inflation and socio-political turmoil on an international scale have led to a sudden increase in the price of fossil fuels. This has resulted in a spike in energy bills for manufacturers in all sectors, with serious repercussions on their ability to keep up production without passing down the extra costs on their customers. But how can manufacturers cope with price rises? And can technology help? Here Neil Ballinger, Head of EMEA at EU Automation, offers some tips.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturing sector has shown a remarkable ability to cope with the unexpected and quickly adapt to new ways of working. Now, manufacturers have to face yet another challenge — a sudden increase in energy costs.
Several trade bodies have recently warned that this situation will prove extremely difficult for companies that operate in energy-intensive sectors. For example, a spokesperson of the British Ceramic Confederation told the BBC that some members will be forced to stop production.
Luckily, investing in the right technologies can help manufacturers minimise their reliance on the volatile prices of fossil fuels, future-proofing businesses in the long run. But what are the technologies that offer the fastest Return On Investment (ROI)?
A microgrid is formed by a Point of Common Coupling (PCC), a source of energy supply, and a charge/discharge storage system, such as batteries. Traditional microgrids rely on fossil fuels, but low-carbon ones use renewable sources, such as solar panels or wind turbines.
Since the price of both renewable energies and modern storage solutions is dropping, low-carbon microgrids can offer significant savings while reducing a firm’s carbon footprint and therefore its environmental taxes.
Additionally, microgrids offer reliable energy independently from the main grid, protecting companies against disruptions that might result from cyberattacks or political upheaval. This is especially useful in sectors where security is paramount, such as data centres and military bases.
Turning production scrap into usable energy is a great example of circular economy. Energy can be recovered from waste using several techniques to turn the by-products of manufacturing processes into power, heat and even transport fuel.
The most common waste-to-energy method is incineration, but this technique is not kind to the environment. Emerging technologies can produce energy from waste without direct combustion, such as gasification, pyrolysis and thermal depolymerisation. However, these methods still require high temperatures.
Non-thermal technologies, on the other hand, are completely environmental-friendly. Among them, anaerobic digestion is one of the most popular, especially in food processing plants. This method can repurpose any kind of organic waste by breaking it down in an oxygen-free tank and transforming it into biogas and biofertilizer.
As a consequence, it is ideal for companies that produce large amounts of organic waste, such as food processing plants, breweries and distilleries. The initial cost of this green technology can generally be amortised in under five years.
According to the European Commission’s Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS), between 20 and 50 per cent of the energy used in industrial processes is simply released into the atmosphere.
However, heat generated from industrial processes can be captured and reused, with the excess heat being sold. The process is relatively simple and is based on extracting residual heat from exhaust gas, fluids or hot air, with the help of dedicated technology, such as heat exchangers or heat pumps. Heat exchangers are particularly helpful and offer excellent energy recovery capabilities, increasing the heat production of a boiler by over 20 per cent in some cases.
This is critical in industries that routinely operate at very high temperatures, such as metalworking, chemical plants, ceramic and glass. The recovered heat can be used in further steps of the manufacturing process, such as pre-heating ovens and furnaces, or can be used for space heating.
In the face of global events that impact fuel prices, manufacturers might feel powerless, but investing in the right technologies is the first step to take back control.