Powerhouse power savers Arcelor Mittal and several other operations in the Phila. area have been cited for energy efficiency.

Posted: March 28, 2010

To the casual observer, the Arcelor Mittal steel plant in Conshohocken hardly seems like it's in the vanguard of the effort to slow down global warming.

In a process that evokes images of industrial-age smokestack technology, glowing slabs of steel are flattened, cooled, and reheated to improve their strength as they move through the mill, occasionally enveloped in dramatic gusts of steam.

But this specialty rolling mill, where the world's largest steel company produces hardened plates for military armor and other applications, is among the operations the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized this month for their long-term commitment to fighting climate change through greater energy efficiency.

The government's Energy Star program recognized Arcelor Mittal USA for operations at several plants, including this expansive mill along the Schuylkill. In recent years, engineers have devised automated systems at the mill to idle powerful electrical machinery during production delays, resulting in savings of more than $200,000 a year on the electric bill, said Ian Mair, the mill's environmental manager.

"We were looking for opportunities, and the obvious ones were equipment that runs all the time, but that you need only intermittently," Mair said.

Other operations in the region recognized by the EPA include Continental Refrigerator Corp., Bensalem; Council Rock School District, Newtown; Giant Eagle Inc., Pittsburgh; Merck & Co. Inc., Whitehorse Station, N.J.; Peco Energy Co., Philadelphia; Saint-Gobain Corp., Valley Forge; and Sunoco Inc., Philadelphia.

Though much of the public debate on climate change has focused on advances in wind and solar generation, energy experts say that efficiency improvements like the changes incorporated at the Conshohocken steel mill, and a related Arcelor Mittal plant in Coatesville, can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions more cheaply than building new generation facilities.

Neal Elliot, associate director of research at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington, said that energy-efficiency measures could yield the same emissions savings as new renewable-power generation, but at one-third to one-fifth of the cost.

"In a lot of cases, these projects might have a payback in a couple of months," he said.

In the industrial sector, the savings can be dramatic, but the improvements must be carefully planned years in advance during a plant turnaround so that production is not affected.

"The savings opportunities in the industrial sector are bigger and cheaper than in other parts of the economy, but you have to be patient," Elliot said.

At Arcelor Mittal's Conshohocken mill - the former Alan Wood Steel plant that has gone through several ownership changes in recent decades - more than half the $200,000 in annual savings was derived from improving a single process, the descaling operation.

The Conshohocken plant takes 9-inch-thick steel slabs produced at the Coatesville plant and progressively flattens the metal into sheets as thin as one-eighth of an inch.

But during the heating and rolling process, iron-oxide scale collects on the surface of the hot steel. Before each sheet passes through the mill, the impurities must be removed with blasts of high-pressure water, producing clouds of steam when the water strikes the 2,350-degree metal.

Though descaling occurs only about 2 percent of the time, the 3,500-horsepower motor that powers the pumps used to run constantly. At a cost of about $300,000, the mill installed a variable-frequency drive that allows the motor to idle when the pumps are not in use.

"We saw this opportunity where we were running this big energy hog 100 percent of the time," Mair said.

Engineers identified other equipment that was consuming electricity during production delays and devised software that automatically idled and restarted the devices, said Ben Fox, an electrical engineer. The system saves about $1,300 a week, and the savings are multiplying as the plant integrates more equipment into the system.

Fox said he had identified other pumps that could be retrofitted with variable-frequency drives, and Arcelor Mittal plans to apply to Peco for funds.

Under a conservation program approved last year, Peco committed to spend $342 million to comply with a law requiring it to reduce consumption 1 percent by 2011 and 3 percent by 2013.

About $62 million has been set aside for large commercial and industrial customers to install equipment, sweetening the incentive to conserve energy. Other funds are available to subsidize more efficient lighting systems.

"We're already getting a payback on the energy savings, but they're going to throw more money at it," Fox said. "We're going to go after some of that money."

Energy Star cited several other organizations with headquarters or significant operations in the Philadelphia area:

Continental Refrigerator. The Bensalem manufacturer was recognized for its efforts to promote Energy Star products in the commercial food-service sector.

Council Rock School District. The Bucks County school district established an energy-management plan in 2005 that saved $2.4 million last year and $7.1 million in the last four years. The district has reduced energy use 40 percent since 2005.

Giant Eagle. The Pittsburgh food retailer, which operates stores in the Philadelphia area, was recognized for its energy-management practices, which reduced energy consumption 14 percent since 2003.

Merck. The New Jersey company, which has significant operations in the Philadelphia area, was recognized for sustained energy-management programs that saved enough energy last year to power 3,000 homes.

Peco. The Philadelphia utility received a special-recognition award for its promotion of energy-efficient lighting in which 486,000 discounted compact fluorescent bulbs were sold in less than a month, saving 25 million kilowatt-hours of energy.

Saint-Gobain. The French building-materials company, best known for its CertainTeed brand and with its North American headquarters in Valley Forge, saved enough energy to make nearly 700 million glass bottles or enough fiberglass insulation for more than 160,000 homes.

Sunoco. The Philadelphia refiner achieved a 5 percent energy reduction at its refineries and a 3.4 percent reduction at its chemical-production facilities. It has launched a program to improve efficiency at its retail outlets and to improve mileage in its fuel-delivery fleet.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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