The POWER Interview: How Industry 4.0 Will Improve Sustainability

As the world continues to face climate uncertainties, industrial companies are looking for ways to ensure they are as sustainable as possible while maintaining profitability. POWER’s recent Distributed Energy Conference included a session on sustainability from the viewpoint of utilities and others in the power generation industry.

Many companies are working toward the goal of being sustainable while also maintaining profitability,  in part by integrating and applying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into operations. Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director at AspenTech, an asset optimization company, recently talked with POWER about the future of sustainability in the energy industry.

POWER: Sustainability is top of mind for leaders across industries. What are the first steps to take when implementing sustainability efforts?

Morse: Businesses have a growing awareness of sustainability as consumers and world leaders put pressure on them to find solutions for a “greener” future. Businesses vary greatly in their approaches to sustainability. To see real success, it’s vital to understand the program objectives and balance the “Three Ps”: People, Planet, and Profitability. Emissions and waste output are top of mind, and early efforts are underway to build toward a circular economy. Revenue and profitability are also important, so any long-term efforts to go green must account for this and not hinder production.

Paige Marie Morse

Once objectives are established, it sets a clear foundation for determining a benchmark to measure results against. Reporting metrics should align with the business objectives. For example, if the goal is to reduce emissions, a common metric to report on is facilities’ energy usage as well as process emissions.

Lastly, it’s critical to plan ahead for pain points. There are a variety of circumstances that can cause downtime and lost product, which contribute to energy waste and emission increases in asset-intensive industries. Having a plan in place to ensure operations can run as smoothly and efficiently as possible means businesses can better avoid losses. The most reliable way to address the biggest pain points—production and energy waste—in an industrial setting is moving into Industry 4.0 and introducing and implementing digital technologies into operations.

POWER: As digital technologies are increasingly introduced into operations, in which ways will they improve energy sustainability?

Morse: Industrial processes demand high energy input. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the bulk chemical industry accounts for the largest portion of U.S. industrial energy use, at 28%, followed by refining at 18%. That’s why ensuring processes remain operational and efficient is key to curbing energy output. However, efficiency is often subject to unforeseen variables, like fluctuating temperatures, feedstock changes, and equipment issues. Implementing advanced digital technologies into operations can not only optimize operations around these variables but also find new efficiencies that ultimately impact energy usage and a company’s bottom line.

Digital technologies deliver increased efficiency across the entire operating lifecycle, which results in improved energy usage. Advanced, predictive supply chain scheduling technology can determine issues in processes that could lead to unplanned downtime, thus eliminating problems long before they impact operations. The ability to predict—sometimes weeks in advance—ensures operations run smoothly so energy isn’t wasted on inefficient processes, thus decreasing energy output and emissions.

One example of a company showing real improvements in energy usage, through use of digital technologies, is Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC). The company used simulation tools to reduce energy use in their refineries by $15 million per year and optimized sourcing of energy between available utilities, to increase efficiency in energy use, all of which reduced CO2 emissions significantly, reducing KNPC’s carbon footprint.

POWER: What technologies do you see having the largest impact on sustainability? Automation, machine learning, AI, or a combination of tech advancements?

Morse: Industry 4.0 will bring increased visibility into operations—from the availability of predictive maintenance to augmented reality—and will lead to efficiency improvements from planning and operations to reporting. Artificial intelligence-enabled technologies give technicians the insight they need to make smart, in-the-moment decisions that lead to improved operations and decreased downtime by integrating the experience of previous processes like machine-learning.

Additionally, adoption of AI-enabled predictive maintenance will expand as businesses appreciate the value of foresight needed to make decisions that improve sustainability and positively impact the bottom line.

POWER: How do you see sustainability reporting changing over the next decade?

Morse: Sustainability can be measured by dollars saved in reduced energy consumption, or reduced waste. The introduction of advanced technologies into operations opens the door for operators to expand metrics to include other aspects of sustainability.

As such, new digital technologies can improve visibility into process emissions and resource consumption, or to better track raw materials and product through the economy. This allows companies to dig deeper and better report on emission output—such as NOxand SOx—and then use the data to continually improve processes to decrease additional emissions. Even more, improvements in visualization and efficiency capabilities means that companies can more readily focus on reducing waste and discharge while optimizing energy usage.

For example, a global mining company recently shared that improved digital data collection enabled early detection of water leak and improved resource use in its African operations.

POWER: Outside of energy, are there other areas in in the industrial world where you think technology can enable better sustainability?

Morse: The circular economy is emerging as an important view for future business, especially regarding plastic waste. The introduction of more advanced technologies into operations allows for plastics and packaging manufacturers to better assess their processes and look for alternative approaches. Many companies are actively working to improve plastic production processes, research alternative feedstocks, and consider new packaging designs that have less impact on environmental systems.

POWER staff (@POWERmagazine).