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Challenge the Status Quo to Unlock Efficiencies: Q&A with Eastman Chemical Company

Chances are that Eastman Chemical Company had a hand in making products you know well, from beverage bottles to medical devices to the paint that coats vehicles. Headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee, the company manufactures advanced materials and specialty additives for customers in more than 100 countries. Last year revenues totaled approximately $9 billion.

In April, for the fourth year in a row, Eastman received the EPA’s Energy Star Partner of the Year-Sustained Excellence Award, which recognized 2016 achievements that included reducing energy intensity by more than 3% in 2015, initiating more than 100 energy-savings projects focused on steam and electrical systems, and realizing a 10% reduction in energy intensity at two sites in under five years. Eastman is currently the only chemical company to receive this award.

“We want to think strategically and holistically about the resources we use,” says Sharon Nolen, Eastman Chemical Company’s manager of global natural resources. A chemical engineer by training as well as a certified energy manager, Nolen also serves as Eastman’s primarily liaison with Energy Star and the DOE’s Better Plants program. Recently we caught up with her to find out how she fosters an efficiency improvement mindset across the organization to save water, energy, and money.

How does Eastman approach sustainability?

We’ve had a sustainability council since 2010. With a new chief sustainability officer in place about a year ago, David Golden, we’ve had a reset. The make-up of the council is several members of the executive team and vice presidents. They’re looking at sustainability across the company. Each subcouncil aligns with one of three commitment areas. The subcouncil I facilitate — design, environment, and natural resources — aligns closely with resource productivity. We’ve brought together multiple organizations that touch this area to collaborate. I’m leading natural resource management, which means energy efficiency, water conservation and reuse, and renewable energy.

What is Eastman’s energy goal and how are you working toward that?

We have a 20% energy intensity reduction by 2020 goal. So that is our energy use normalized for production and weather. We do a whole variety of projects. Some we refer to as “blocking and tackling” — fixing leaks, making sure we have insulation in place. Some are larger capital projects where we replace equipment. And then some are operational changes. That’s the one I have a particular passion about because we have a lot of infrastructure in the ground, and oftentimes there are no-cost or low-cost changes we can make by operating our equipment differently and improving the efficiency.

What are changes you’ve made along those lines?

One manufacturing example is we had an area feeding water into a scrubber. Over time, the valve feeding the water had deteriorated so it became impossible to control the water flow well. To make sure we were removing the pollutants and meeting the environmental regulations, too much water was going in. Downstream that caused additional energy use because more water had to be removed in the distillation column. We did maintenance on the valve. That meant less water in the scrubber, we still met the environmental regulations, and downstream there was less that had to be removed.

Our energy program and the Energy Star Partner of the Year award raised awareness of energy efficiency. In that same project, process improvement engineers looked at using a distillation column that was more efficient than another. At some point a temperature limit on that column was set and nobody remembered exactly how or why. That’s something we need to do: Challenge the status quo. Is there a good reason for continuing to operate the way we always have? The net steam savings from reducing the water flow and increasing the use of the distillation column has been 15,847 million BTUs per year.

What’s another example?

We have a high-pressure and a low-pressure natural gas source within the plant. In one place we were using low-pressure natural gas and having to compress it to get the required pressure for the production area. We simply put in a pipeline so that we transported high-pressure natural gas to this process. Then we were able to completely eliminate a compressor. We don’t have to maintain that piece of equipment any more.

There are often wins beyond just energy. We’ve done a lot of lighting changes where we’ve put LEDs in. More than 6.8 megawatts of lighting load has been eliminated by installing more efficient lighting. We often have lighting high off the ground in warehouses and production areas. If we can put in longer-life LEDs, not only do we reduce the energy they use, but employees stay safer by working fewer hours at elevated heights to change those bulbs.

In general, what are the main challenges you’re encountering?

Our biggest challenge now is data management. We have a lot of data and we’re working to have real-time information in front of the people operating different chemical processes. Often they don’t know how specific decisions they’re making immediately impact how much energy they’re using. It’s a continual challenge to get all the right data to the right people at the right time.

Another thing is, because manufacturing does have a lot of competing priorities, integrating energy efficiency and water conservation into day-to-day thinking. You don’t just flip the switch. You have to communicate different things to different people so they know how they can contribute.

The third challenge, particularly with the operational changes I’m talking about, is that they aren’t needle-movers in and of themselves. It takes many of them to contribute to our overall goal.

What key lessons have you learned?

One is around communication and the importance of employee engagement. When we first started pitching some of the energy projects to the subcouncil that was a precursor to the one we have now, our engineers typically talked about “payback time.” But as I started to meet with executives, I found out that they wanted to say “internal rates of return.” We were able to adjust how we presented the information, and that definitely helped get projects approved.

Another is the importance of partnerships. As I meet people through Energy Star and the DOE, we have a good network of industrial energy managers we talk to and benchmark with. An example is ArcelorMittal, a steel company. As we began our LED program, we got information from them on their lighting program.

Nissan’s process is nothing like a chemical process, but we learned about how they do employee engagement. They do an energy fair where they focus on home energy use. We’ve held energy fairs because we like our employees to think about energy and water the same way they do about safety: at home and at work.

Has this had an effect at Eastman?

We’ve used Energy Star Portfolio Manager to look at building efficiency. We had a time where we were working with a particular building to reduce energy use. Over about a year, when we had no project there, the energy use decreased by about 10%. We could only attribute it to employee behavior. At the time we were doing targeted communication reminding people to turn off lights that aren’t needed, equipment that’s not needed, that sort of thing. I’m convinced that it made a difference.

Mark your calendars: The next Environmental Leader Conference & Energy Manager Summit will take place May 15-17, 2018 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center with speakers like Sharon Nolen. More information here.

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