Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Can you generate more energy with your existing wastewater assets? Our latest energy project delivered a 9% increase in generation during the first improvement phase with no capital investment.

It’s difficult to think of a time when the water industry wasn’t under such cost pressure. The sector has seen unprecedented, interrelated headwinds over the past couple of years:

  • Supply chain inflation driving up the costs of CAPEX schemes.
  • Interest rate increases have pushed up the costs of servicing debt.
  • Wholesale energy prices have doubled since early 2021.

Yet, it must still deliver excellent customer service, meet regulatory performance commitments, and create value for investors. It’s quite a challenge, and all must be delivered under the ever-watchful eye of the media, waiting to pounce on any missed step. It reminds me of the quote, “You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” Anon.

Energy prices have eased a little over the past few months, but Wastewater leaders must adjust their sail to the new normal, doubling down on energy efficiency and generation initiatives to deliver business plan commitments.

Generation

While the industry is moving towards  ‘gas to grid’ solutions, most companies still use CHPs to generate energy. Maximising the value of biogas is complex and needs to be managed in the context of wastewater production, often using suboptimal processes because of a long-sweated asset base that experiences regular breakdowns. 

Do you clearly understand the energy losses you incur daily through inefficiencies in your process? Some losses, such as gas flaring, are easy to see, while others are harder to spot. Can you quantify losses due to:

  • Engine overhauls – how much lost generation does this incur?
  • CHP minor stops – are you maximising kWh per cubic meter gas?
  • Efficiency of gas generation – are you maximising quality gas generation?
  • Engine capacity – are you maximising the available capacity for each engine?
  • Lost production due to misaligned maintenance activities?

If you are already meeting your generation targets, you may not even be looking at these losses and missing the opportunity to maximise your generation. During a recent diagnostic assessment, we identified over £1.5m p.a. in addressable energy generation losses.

Maximising Generation

In our experience, addressing the issues impacting generation falls into four broad categories:

  1. Production Planning: Setting generation targets for the business plan is an integral part of planning and leads to creating site targets. This is the start of the planning process, not the end. Assumptions about asset availability and throughput were best estimates when developing the business plan and are  likely to change. 

Production planning should take place over three-time horizons, each focusing on delivering the business plan target, not individual site targets. Focus on the big prize:

  1. Operational: Daily Plan (1-2 weeks) – maximise generation based on current operating conditions
  2. Tactical: Weekly Plan (2-12 weeks) – maximise generation at the lowest cost 
  3. Strategic: Monthly Plan (3-18mths) – maximise generation at the lowest cost aligned to business strategy

At its simplest, we want to ensure we are moving sludge to where we will have the capacity to process it and generate energy at the lowest cost. Can we import from outside the region and sweat the assets where spare capacity exists?

How effective is your planning process? Do you have formal reviews in place to understand variations in the plan? Are you continuously evolving your planning process?

  1. Asset Maintenance: Asset availability is critical to optimising the energy generation process. Whether that’s site assets or CHP assets, all impact generation. To deliver a high level of availability, maintenance teams must complete planned maintenance to schedule and address reactive failures effectively. Unfortunately, most utilities operate with maintenance backlogs, which impact generation.

Do you have a maintenance backlog? Can you quantify the generation losses from asset availability? Are you completing your planned maintenance activities?

Our work in this area has demonstrated that by focusing on a few key areas, it is possible to create 15-20% additional capacity, sufficient to clear most backlogs.

Read our Maintenance article to find out more.

  1. Site Operators: We know who the best site operators are; we can tell as performance deteriorates when they go on leave. They have lots of experience and understand the intricacies and nuances of the site. When assets fail, they know the best cause of action. 

While these people are great, they are often a single point of failure. You can manage when they go on leave for a few weeks, but imagine if they won the lottery. How would you replace this knowledge? 

The most effective businesses ‘codify’ this experience in the form of standard operating procedures, dashboards, control limits and defined contingency plans for dealing with everyday issues. New colleagues can be trained in the standard working methods and how to identify and manage common problems. This approach ensures that all operators work in a standard way, a key enabler to continuous improvement.

Are your operations managed through an effective visually documented process, or are you reliant on experience and knowledge? 

  1. Management System: All organisations review performance using KPIs and dashboards. There is no doubt that some organisations have better data than others. However, in almost all instances, it’s not the lack of data that inhibits improvement but the cohesion of the management system, particularly in a complex process like energy generation.

Performance is often reviewed by specialist teams such as maintenance, planners, etc. Each sees their own part of the process but not the big picture. Bringing cross-functional teams together so they can see how their activities relate to the big picture is essential to continuous improvement.

Do you have KPIs which provide energy insights? Are your teams working in isolation and missing the big picture? Do your teams have effective processes that ensure aligned and effective decision-making?

Consumption

It recently took me a few days to discover why our energy consumption had ‘shot up’. Someone had switched on the immersion heater and left it on. No one has admitted responsibility.

For us to make effective decisions about consumption, we need quality data. Like at home, it’s interesting to know how much energy we have consumed in the past 24 hours using the smart meter app. However, actionable insights only come from a detailed understanding of the appliances that consume the most energy and why. 

Optimising assets for energy needs to consider four areas:

  1. Spend to Save Schemes – Replace a power-hungry asset with new efficient assets. The business case for this type of investment has become more accessible with the increased energy costs. 
  2. Asset Configuration – Has the asset been effectively configured to optimise for energy? Many assets were configured when energy costs were low and efficiency may not have been considered during installation.
  3. Asset Maintenance – Tracking the compliance of operator and maintainer tasks on the assets; failure to complete the tasks will lead to enhanced deterioration and increased consumption.
  4. Energy Monitoring – The use of condition monitoring to trigger maintenance intervention when assets are drawing more energy than designed.

So to work out what you need to do, ask yourself the following:

  • Do your teams have access to the correct data that provides real performance insights? 
  • Does your energy dashboard track critical assets consumption data? 
  • Have you seen a significant increase in ‘Spend to Save ‘initiatives for high-energy use assets?
  • Do you have a programme of activities aimed at reducing consumption?

If you would like to know more about our experiences working with other utilities to reduce the volume of energy imported from the grid, please email dean.wheeler@reson8.group.