The future of a 16-year-old program at Arizona State University that helps businesses save energy is in jeopardy because of budget cuts.
The ASU Industrial Assessment Center, a part of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, offers free energy and efficiency audits to small- and medium-sized businesses in Arizona and the Las Vegas area, which are conducted by faculty and undergraduate and graduate students.
The center, which has an annual budget of about $200,000, is entirely funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a network of 26 university-affiliated industrial assessment centers nationwide. Despite the interest in conservation brought on by high energy prices, DOE has money to fund only half of those centers for the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1, said Pat Phelan, director of the ASU center. As of last week, Phelan had not received word on the fate of the ASU group.
“We are proposing to do 25 audits next year,” he said. “We also are proposing to be a specialist center for solar applications, to encourage the use of solar energy in industry. We think there are a lot of opportunities for solar energy, especially here.”
Officials at the Department of Energy could not be reached for comment.
Over the years the ASU center has assessed a wide range of businesses from sawmills to semiconductor plants. Typically a team of one or two faculty members and four students will visit the plant, paying particular attention to energy-consuming equipment such as compressors, heat exchangers and boilers. The team also examines the plant’s utility bills and calculates the amount of energy expended for each unit produced.
The team then brainstorms ideas that could cut energy consumption, calculating the cost of implementation, the annual savings and the length of the payback time.
Within 60 days of visiting the company site the team prepares a list of recommendations and an analysis of the projected savings.
The business is then free to accept or reject the suggestions as it chooses.
In addition to offering energy-saving ideas, the program gives engineering students experience in industry, said Phelan, who also is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
“That is getting really valuable in terms of getting job offers,” he said.
Although the teams often find ways to produce major energy savings, on average the companies implement less than a fourth of the recommendations, he said. Often that’s because the front-end capital costs are higher than the business wants to pay, he said.
Between 2001 and 2004 the center’s recommendations on average would have saved each company $225,000 annually, but implemented savings averaged about $50,000 annually.
If the DOE cuts its support, Phelan said the engineering school may try to find other sources of funding from utilities or charging firms for a portion of the cost of the audit.
Gary Campbell, engineering project manager for Watson Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company in Phoenix, said an assessment of the company’s facilities by the ASU team last year was extensive. But so far the company has only implemented one recommendation, which is saving the firm about $5,000 a year on its natural gas bill. The others would require capital spending or plant down time the company wants to avoid, he said.
Still, Campbell hopes more can be implemented in the future. “I think they did a good job. I was amazed we could get it for free,” he said.