Efficiency hunters

SMART IAC students along with Chelsea Choudhary, program manager and G.P. Li, program director/CALIT2 director visit a facility for assessment.

The United States’ manufacturing sector is massive – accounting for 12% of the nation’s economy, employing nearly 13 million people (8% of the workforce) and generating 57% of U.S. exports. It also consumes about one-third of all energy produced in the U.S. – a high cost financially as well as environmentally. Industries are facing increasing pressure to make their processes more sustainable but aren’t always aware of potential ways to improve energy efficiency.

CALIT2’s newly launched Sustainable Manufacturing Alliance for Research and Training Industrial Assessment Center (SMART IAC) program aims to help local manufacturers reduce their carbon emissions and cut energy costs by offering no-cost, energy-efficiency assessments. In addition, the SMART IAC will address the growing shortage of engineering professionals with energy and manufacturing-related skills by training students through hands-on participation in these assessments, says G.P. Li, SMART IAC co-director and CALIT2 director.

Last September, UCI was selected as one of 32 universities nationwide to become a U.S. Department of Energy Industrial Assessment Center. IACs provide small- and medium-sized manufacturers with assessments and recommendations on energy efficiency, productivity improvement, sustainability and competitiveness as well as measure the impacts of these recommendations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The university will receive nearly $2.25 million of a $60 million investment by the DOE. The grant will also fund energy-efficiency assessments to be provided free of charge to manufacturing facilities in the area.

SMART IAC is housed at CALIT2 and operates along with two satellite centers at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and Cypress College.

BEACON (Building Energy Assessment for Commercial Optimization toward Net Zero) is a collaboration between Cypress College and SMART IAC. Cohorts of UCI engineering juniors and seniors will team up with Cypress students to learn from each other.

“We have a diverse population,” says Carlos Urquidi, department coordinator and professor of air conditioning & refrigeration at Cypress College. “More than 80% of our student body represents minorities and students of color.

“Our air condition and refrigeration program is accredited by HVC Excellence, a nationally recognized accreditation body,” Urquidi says. By working in tandem, UCI engineering students will have the opportunity to see the process from a technician’s view and, by the same token, technicians are going to say, ‘OK, now we understand what engineers do.’ That is going to be a good collaboration,” he adds.

Since opening earlier this year, SMART IAC has launched a website (smartiac.calit2.uci.edu), recruited students and set up an application process for businesses seeking free energy assessments.

“The SMART IAC will benefit the underserved and underrepresented STEM students at UCI, CSUN and Cypress College,” says Bingbing Li, SMART IAC co-director and associate director of the Autonomy Research Center for STEAHM at CSUN. “And it will improve the energy efficiency and waste management of the small- and medium-sized manufacturers and businesses located in Southern California.”

The center expects to conduct at least 20 assessments of small- and medium-sized manufacturers annually. About 10 SMART IAC fellows will be recruited each year from UCI and CSUN to participate in the training. In the winter quarter, six engineering students (four from UCI and two from CSUN) were accepted into the program.

SMART IAC directors, G.P. Li, UCI; Carlos Urquidi, Cypress College; Bingbing Li, CSUN.

“The first step is training,” says Li Zhao, SMART IAC assistant director and technical director of the California Plug Load Research Center. “Students are introduced to the fundamentals of industrial equipment and processes. They’ll study previous energy assessment reports and learn how to develop an assessment strategy and checklist for an industrial facility. The objective is to prepare students to be energy auditors or energy engineers and find opportunities for improvement in energy performance.”

Meraf Amare, a SMART IAC fellow and third-year electrical engineering student at UCI, says, “My interest in energy efficiency really began because I wanted to learn more about sustainability and how it overlaps with my interest in engineering. There are so many moving parts in just one building,” she adds. “It’s been surprising to learn about just how many different systems have to work simultaneously in order to have clean water, cold air conditioning and things that we normally take for granted.”

Prior to visiting a facility to be assessed, students will spend four to six weeks developing a pre-assessment or preliminary analysis. “It’s how we form a strategy,” Zhao says. “The more prepared we are, the more we can find.”

The preliminary analysis defines the scope of the assessment and considers a bounty of criteria submitted by the facility. General information about the building, a list of energy-consuming equipment, operating schedules, energy bills and other materials help the team understand the facility’s current energy situation and may identify simple operational and maintenance improvements. The preassessment also helps the team develop a checklist to designate what data will be measured and collected on-site and the types of instrumentation and diagnostic equipment that will be needed.

Armed with a strategy and their checklist, a team of eight SMART IAC members will be ready to conduct the one-day, on-site assessment. “Students will be prepared to go into real-life industrial settings to see the action – motors, compressors, equipment – then identify and measure the problems, and report the data,” Zhao says.

Depending on the facility, the energy assessment team will target specific systems, processes and equipment to find measurable, verifiable and useful energy efficiency opportunities.

Measurements and a data inventory are usually conducted on different energy systems (pumps, fans, compressed air, steam and process heating). Other common data measured are liquid and gas fuel flows, electrical measurements (such as voltage, current intensity and power), temperatures of solid and liquid surfaces, pressure of fluids in pipes, furnaces, exhaust gases emissions, relative humidity and luminance levels (the measurable quality of light). “By working in tandem, UCI engineering students will have the opportunity to see the process from a technician’s view and, by the same token, technicians are going to say, ‘OK, now we understand what engineers do.’ That is going to be a good collaboration.”

“Finding hidden energy savings is like being on a treasure hunt, and the energy assessment team is like a treasure hunter,” he says. “It’s a treasure hunt to find the weak spot where a facility isn’t aware they could save more energy.”

“I wholeheartedly agree,” says Hayde E. Abrego Onofre, a civil engineering sophomore at UCI. “However, we can’t go out and expect to analyze an air compressor, for example, and suggest a change within the machinery itself. Here’s when the treasure hunt plays in – looking around the air compressor for components such as leaks and other details that can deter from maximizing proper usage,” she says. “These tricks to spot details not only optimize energy efficiency, but also impact the people and buildings of the whole manufacturing system.”

Following their on-site visit, the team will work six to eight weeks developing an assessment report containing recommendations for the facility, says Chelsea Choudhary, SMART IAC program manager. “Companies like to save money,” she adds. “The report calculates their energy savings, payback years and potential savings.”

IAC assessments regularly identify more than $130,000 in potential annual savings opportunities, according to the DOE.

“It’s really interesting to see all the small changes that a company or facility operator can adopt and watch it balloon to greater savings,” Amare says. “Sometimes the discourse about sustainability, climate change and other related topics involves a lot of theoreticals, and looking 20 or 30 years into the future. Efficiency audits can provide concrete actions for facilities to begin improving almost immediately,” she says. “I think this is empowering to not only the facility, but to our team as well. It feels like you are making a real difference in the drive toward a greener future.”

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