Energy efficiency still has untapped potential

​When I joined Metsä Group around a year ago, the goal was clear: improve the energy efficiency index by three percentage points by the end of 2020. The goal is still clear, but now that I'm a year wiser, the ways by which to achieve it have become clearer.

Pirita Mikkanen
Pirita Mikkanen

Energy efficiency

Metsä Group has engaged in systematic work to improve energy efficiency since at least 2003. Over the years, roughly half of the savings in energy have derived from equipment investments and the other half from changes to operating methods or the way in which processes are run.

The energy efficiency benefit to be gained through equipment investments is set to become increasingly expensive, since the ripe fruits have already been picked. It has been estimated that the financially rational potential for the improvement of energy efficiency through equipment investments in an energy-intensive industry in Europe would be 6–13 per cent, but that the overall technical potential would be as high as 26 per cent. In other words, even the expert estimates support the notion that half of the energy efficiency potential does not require equipment investments, but more advanced control systems and careful operation.

Why have we been unable to harness the significant potential of means other than equipment investments? I’ve been involved in energy efficiency work for a long time and observed that, especially during economic booms and times of high prices, the development of production’s cost-efficiency takes backstage to production volume. This often boils down to minor actions and adjustments serving to ensure the product’s volume and quality, but at the same time, the costs can increase, unnoticed. During weaker times, machines may have to be operated below capacity, which is seldom the most energy efficient option.

Small streams easily grow into big rivers, and this is why we need more information and the support of systems to detect small improvements or losses in efficiency. While there is plenty of know-how in the mills, the knowledge does not transfer to the systems by itself. The transformation of empirical know-how into part of the knowledge contained in systems is equal to long-term and extremely valuable teamwork.  As the knowledge in the systems develops, increasingly complex choices can be facilitated by combining earlier choices and cost accounting. Metsä Group has gathered good experiences of how the personnel’s appreciation of costs impacts selected activities.

Solutions for making use of the data produced by automation systems already exist, even if many industries are only in the process of collating the data. Functional applications, based on machine learning and artificial intelligence, which refine data into structured information and further on into actions already exist. However, process competence and data analysis still have some way to go before being fully compatible. Metsä Group, too, engages in the continuous comparison of mills’ production volumes, safety and quality – all topics of great importance and worthy of everyone’s attention. Even so, investments in the initial phases of data analytics are substantial, which is why they have been directed mainly at quality development so far. 

The forest industry is an energy-intensive industry, and this is why every kilowatt-hour saved is important not only for the company’s results but the climate. Metsä Group’s yearly energy efficiency measures saved nearly as much carbon dioxide per each of our employees* as the emissions caused by a private individual’s goods and purchases (excluding food). 

* Finland's average emission factors were used to facilitate the calculation, despite the country of savings

Pirita Mikkanen

Director, Energy Efficiency Development, Metsä Group

Pirita Mikkanen is an experienced professional of energy efficiency and change management. Cost-efficiency became rooted in her work back when she was an entrepreneur as well as in the management and board work of solution suppliers for the wood processing industry. Mikkanen enjoys forest surroundings even during her free time, whether she’s after control points, mushrooms or her dog.

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