Navigant Research Blog

Automation Gives Manufacturers an Energy Boost

— October 17, 2014

According to the U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, a measure developed by financial research firm Markit, manufacturing activity in the United States in September reached its highest point in more than 4 years.  Factory employment, though still well below pre-2008 levels, reached its highest level since March 2012.

U.S. manufacturers are getting a boost from low energy costs, driven primarily by the bonanza of low-cost natural gas (and, to a lesser extent, by distributed renewables, often onsite at plants).  But what’s going on inside U.S. plants is equally important.  Increased energy efficiency, enabled by a revolution in process automation technology, is also helping U.S. manufacturers compete with manufacturers that enjoy low-cost labor in developing countries, particularly China.

Excess No Longer Success

Since peaking around 1999, the primary energy use in the U.S. manufacturing sector has declined steadily, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, from about 35 quadrillion BTUs annually to less than 31 quads.  Energy intensity – the BTUs used per dollar value of shipments – has declined even more dramatically.

The shift is coming as a shock to old-line factory managers unused to calculating energy as a key metric of efficiency and productivity.  “No one ever got fired for purchasing a pump or a machine that’s too big for the job,” said Fred Discenzo, manager of R&D at Rockwell Automation, at a recent energy management conference in Akron, Ohio.  In manufacturing, “excess capacity has always been the safe option.”

Rockwell is among an emerging segment of technology vendors that is trying to change that, through what it calls “the connected enterprise.”  What that means is connecting the factory floor to the C-suite with far greater visibility and immediacy than before.  Another name for this change might be “extreme granularity.”  In the near future, energy use will be measured not at the factory or line or machine level, but at the individual process level, per unit of production: how much energy did it take to make this widget or valve or bag of ice, and where in the process can that energy use be optimized?

The Next Revolution

Advances in factory-floor networks, wireless sensors, virtualization, and monitoring equipment are enabling these improvements in manufacturing efficiency, energy conservation, and quality control.  These twinned revolutions – cleaner, cheaper, more distributed energy coming into the plant and sophisticated automation technology reducing energy intensity inside the plant – will result in changes that have far-reaching implications for the manufacturing sector, and for the economy.  “The new era of manufacturing will be marked by highly agile, networked enterprises that use information and analytics as skillfully as they employ talent and machinery to deliver products and services to diverse global markets,” concluded a 2012 McKinsey study entitled Manufacturing the Future.

At 32% of total energy consumption, industry uses more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy.  Manufacturers that adapt to the new realities of energy, by changing the ways in which they source and use electricity, will be more competitive on the global stage – and could help usher in the new economic upswing that politicians and analysts have been dreaming of for years.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Will Work Best Within Limits

— October 1, 2014

About the only way your next car has much chance of driving itself is if you live in a gated community or on a college campus where it won’t have to deal with too many variables like other traffic.  Just as voice recognition systems work best with limited vocabularies, autonomous vehicles will probably be limited to such constrained environments for the foreseeable future.  That’s the conclusion from the recent ITS World Congress 2014 in Detroit.  Increasing levels of vehicle automation were a major topic of discussion during the annual conference on intelligent transportation systems.

Google has been pushing the idea that self-driving vehicles will hit the road within the next 5 years.  Google had no official presence at the conference, but a lot of companies that build cars, parts, and infrastructure systems were there, and no one that I spoke with was in agreement with Google’s timing projections.  The general consensus is that we won’t see widespread use of full operating range autonomous vehicles until closer to 2030.

Not Street-Ready

That’s not to say that no one believes in automated driving; quite the opposite.  It’s just that in engineering circles, there’s a rule of thumb known as the 90/10 rule.  That is, 90% of the technical challenge of a project takes about 10% of the time and effort.  The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.  In the realm of self-driving cars, we have just begun that last 10% phase, where the basic hardware elements are all worked out but a lot of software decisions have yet to be made in order for autonomous systems to be truly robust.

Much of the on-road development by Google and other companies has been occurring in places like California and Nevada, where environmental factors like snow and even rain are a rarity.  In order for autonomous vehicles to be both commercially and legally viable, they’ll have to work reliably under any weather and road conditions.

General Motors (GM), Volkswagen, and other automakers have been working on autonomous technology much longer than Google, and they understand these limitations.  When GM rolled out a two-seat self-driving pod car known as the Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V, at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, program leader Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird acknowledged that, while this type of vehicle would eventually be an ideal way to deal with the congestion problems of megacities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the first feasible real-world applications were likely to be in restricted environments, such as campuses and gated communities.

Say Again

As powerful as computers have become, they still don’t deal with the nuances of the real world very well.  That’s why voice recognition systems still struggle to understand what should be simple natural language commands on a smartphone.  The most successful applications of the technology have been for tasks like medical transcription, with limited and specific word vocabularies and little ambient noise.  Similarly, automated vehicles function best in constrained spaces, such as buses over fixed routes or the aforementioned commuter pods.

Google hasn’t actually made any major breakthroughs in the technology that we know of.  It just jumped into field relatively recently, hiring many of the engineers and scientists that worked on the autonomous vehicles fielded by automakers in the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge competitions of 2006 and 2007, and leveraging the cost declines of the required sensors.

Where Google has outdone the incumbents is getting the technology media to talk about their efforts – but that’s unlikely to put full-function self-driving cars into consumers’ hands any sooner.

 

In Colorado, a New Solar Model Takes Root

— September 26, 2014

A few years ago the Yampa Valley Electric Association, the rural cooperative that serves communities across northwest Colorado, including the Steamboat Springs ski resort, signed an agreement with a company called Clean Energy Collective to build a community solar garden in the valley.

Headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) has helped pioneer the community solar model, in which individuals and businesses can buy shares in solar power generation facilities rather than owning or leasing the solar panels themselves.  Paul Spencer, the founder and CEO of the company, calls it “solar for the masses.”

CEC signs a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the incumbent utility then pre-sells solar generation capacity in the form of subscriptions and finances construction using the PPA and the subscriptions, essentially, as collateral.  Subscribers don’t necessarily get the actual power flowing from the solar array; those electrons go onto the local power grid and appear as renewable energy credits on the customers’ bills. CEC makes money by charging subscribers a slight mark-up over the cost of producing the power.

Under the Smokestacks

As a way of shifting away from the antiquated, centralized, and coal-dependent power grid, community is a powerful model.  Founded in 2010, CEC now has 45 facilities spread across 19 utilities in 9 states. Spencer expects the number of facilities to double by the end of 2015.

In the Yampa Valley, though, CEC had a problem.

Craig, about 40 miles west of Steamboat in the mesa country of far west Colorado, has always been a coal town.  Most of the solar customers would certainly be in Steamboat, at the eastern end of the valley. But land in Steamboat is not cheap, and CECs business model is based, in part, on building solar arrays without paying too much for the land. Proximity to customers was a lesser concern.

As it turned out, there was an ideal site in Craig – literally in the shadows of the Craig power station’s smokestacks. CEC quickly signed up enough people to take 30% of the solar power the garden would produce. That’s when the problem arose.

The land the solar garden was on was owned by the city of Craig, but the mineral rights were held by Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the operator of the Trapper Mine outside town.  Tri-State officials said the rights were unlikely to be exercised — but they declined to formally cede them.  What’s more, some city council members were against the idea in principle, believing that it was harmful to the interests of the coal industry.  Spooked by the mineral rights issue, the title company on the land deal washed its hands of the deal. For a time, it appeared that the solar garden was dead.

Bridging the Divide

Paul Spencer and Terry Carwile, the mayor of Craig, weren’t ready to give up. “We begged, borrowed, and stole,” Spencer told me, chuckling. “We had to find a way to work around the mineral rights issue, and the town helped us do that.”

By the fall of 2014, a new, more amenable title company had been found, the deal was back in place, and CEC had resumed signing up customers.  In coal country, a truce had set in.

“Solar is not the replacement for coal,” said Spencer. “It’s another power solution that helps build a low-carbon future. In some small way, this project is an initial way to bridge the divide between Craig and Steamboat – between the coal-producing world and the renewable energies of the future.”

 

As Commodity Prices Slide, Big Miners Seek a Sustainable Strategy

— August 22, 2014

Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy in the Mining Industry, summed up the state of the global mining business: “In the last decade, increased demand from countries such as China and other emerging economies pushed the price of many metals and minerals upward, which stimulated investment in the mining industry. More recently, the global economic downturn and the collapse in a number of metal and mined commodity prices forced the mining industry to scale back investment into new mine sites, reduce operating mine lives, and scale back their investment into more capital expenditure-heavy renewable energy.”

Since that report was published in the fourth quarter of last year, commodity prices have stumbled further, and the pressures on mining giants like Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, and Vale Brazil have intensified.

On the surface, so to speak, it’s a great time to be an extractive company with worldwide operations in iron, copper, coal, and other minerals that are essential to the functioning of the modern industrialized economy.  The rise of China and India has created a seemingly bottomless well of demand, particularly for iron ore for steelmaking; technological advancements have cut the costs of large-scale mining operations (while eliminating thousands of well-paying jobs); and governments in places desperate for economic growth, such as Mongolia and Sub-Saharan Africa, have proven pliant to the demands of multinational mining corporations.

The Bottom of the Well

Rio Tinto’s profits in the first half of 2014 doubled from the same period a year before.  BHP Billiton made $13.4 billion in profits in the 12 months leading up to June 2014.  Brazil’s Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore, reported second quarter profits of $1.43 billion – slightly below Wall Street estimates but still a healthy increase over the year before.

A closer look, though, shows that big miners are playing a risky and ultimately unsustainable game.  The term of fashion in the mining industry today is “de-diversification” as mining companies sell off low-margin mines that they invested in during the commodities boom of 2002-2008, before the global financial systems crashed and growth in China ground almost to a halt.  To keep profits up, the companies are slashing costs and adding new production – a short-term strategy that could spell long-term disaster.

Rio Tinto’s results “showed that the strategy of carving into costs while ramping up volumes that are being pursued by the major miners has worked to offset commodity price declines,” wrote Stephen Bartholomeusz in the Australian business publication, Business Spectator.  “The key question – worth billions of dollars – is whether it will continue to work.”

Twilight in the Mines

Ultimately, the dilemma facing miners of low-margin commodities like iron and coal is that as economies like China’s and India’s develop, they need less basic stuff.  It takes less iron to make an iPhone than it does to assemble an airliner.  Despite slowing demand, Vale plans to double its exports of iron ore to China over the next 5 years.  Pumping more iron and coal into markets that need less of them is not a winning strategy over the long run.  Goldman Sachs analysts have estimated that the rate of growth in the supply of iron ore is 3 times the rate of growth in demand.  That’s a recipe for a glut and a price crash.  Already, iron prices are on a downward slide.

Asian iron ore spot prices have fallen 31% this year, according to Reuters, and “the consensus is that they will remain below $100 for the foreseeable future as big miners such as BHP, Anglo-Australian rival Rio Tinto and Brazil’s Vale ramp up output even as Chinese demand growth weakens.”

As with coal, iron ore could be entering a downward spiral that could overwhelm the major miners as they narrow their focuses:  “Iron ore risks becoming another coal,” remarked Reuters’ commodities columnist Clyde Russell, “where miners pursue output gains in order to lower costs, but in the end the resulting supply surplus just depresses prices even more, resulting in a no-win situation for producers.”

Like the coal era, the age of iron and steel is nearing its twilight.  That’s not good if you’re a multinational mining outfit.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Smart Grid Practice, Smart Transportation Practice, Smart Transportation Program, Utility Innovations

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Richard Martin","path":"\/author\/rmartin_pr","date":"10\/26\/2014"}