Resource Efficiency Breakthroughs Require a Systems Approach

Resource efficiency in the industrial sector is fascinatingly complex. Industrial sites employ a wide variety of materials, resources and processing equipment, all arranged into various systems. There are resource efficiency opportunities to be found among each of the various components in a typical industrial plant, but the truly ground-breaking opportunities are generally found at the system level.

Let me use a simple example to illustrate. Consider a tank that is heated with steam using a coil. If the condensate from this heating process is not recovered, there is a loss of energy and water, an increase in required make-up water treatment chemicals and an increase in effluent volumes. One option could be to recover this condensate to the boiler house. The viability of this option would depend on the benefits to be derived and the costs of implementation. An analysis based on these issues alone would in most cases favour recovery of the condensate. Taking a slightly broader view could however change this scenario. For example, what if the tank was not insulated? In this case it could use a significantly larger amount of steam than an insulated tank, leading to a condensate volume that may easily justify recovery. However, insulation would in most cases be a better project to execute, since this would reduce steam usage in the first place. It may then be acceptable to simply discard the condensate, since its volume would be significantly reduced. Of course one could implement both options (even if the condensate savings were negligible) on the basis that the portfolio of projects is still viable, but the point is that a component-level analysis has serious shortcomings.

In industrial plants, systems become a lot more complex than in this example. Individual sub-systems interact with each other across dimensions of water use efficiency, material usage efficiency and energy efficiency, and these resource efficiency issues also need to be assessed with due consideration for mission-critical matters like product quality, safety, plant reliability and flexibility. A component-level view based on a simplistic determination of “savings” could actually be to the detriment of the system. By all means get into the detail and evaluate as many potential opportunities as possible, but always step back and consider the system when assessing viability. Consider also that the boundaries of the system are not necessarily limited to the industrial site alone. Role-players across your value chain have an impact on resource efficiency within your operations, and should be engaged. An example would be the careful procurement of raw materials in order to maximise process yields. Beware the “cheap” raw material that actually is more expensive to use. Remember too that collaboration with industrial sites in your vicinity can go a long way towards optimising resource efficiency through the sharing of resources, beneficiation of waste streams and even sharing of knowledge. When you develop the habit of taking a systems view you will find that the opportunities to reduce costs and emissions open up dramatically.

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