Letters From The Earth

Make changes. Find rewards.

By Calvin Frost, Chairman of Channeled Resources Group | November 18, 2011

Get past the charlatans and the naysayers, and discover that environmental changes and improvements come with benefits.

As I begin this last column for 2011 I can’t help but think about all the positive changes related to energy that I’ve discussed. This is my third and final segment on energy, and while I want to focus on several specific success stories I also want to make a few general comments.

In the two preceding columns on energy I reviewed waste-to-energy and then talked about emergency technologies like pyrolysis, gasification and anaerobic digestion. A note of caution: Beware the snake oil. When we read and discuss these stories of conversion they seem like the road to success: that with these processes we can generate energy, immediately. Generating high value products from waste without the long wait while reaping collection and/or tip fees sounds pretty good, right? The sales pitch sounds like the Central Vacuum Cleaner pitch of years ago, which means watch out: You need to get the whole story. The current pitch and fervor from vendors would lead you to believe that all these technologies are tried and widely operational. For a few million down you’ll get a system that will have you recouping your investment immediately. Again, beware.

There is no question that using waste to generate energy has created a different perspective and opportunity. I am very much in favor of diverting our byproduct from the waste stream. Indeed, anything that minimizes fossil fuel usage, reduces landfill use, and eliminates environmental and corporate risk has my support. But as Marcello Truzzi stated, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Keep in mind that many of the proven technologies mentioned earlier were developed by NASA in the 1970s to heat test the re-entry of space vehicles. They have not been proven on a large scale. So use common sense. The devil is in the details, and in this case we need to go through second and third generation developments before we can confirm successful use on a commercial basis. Will it happen? You bet. But be careful. (I am reminded of the same process with PLA films – first generation, second generation, third in process, and now we’re on to PHA.) Conversion technology is promising, but there are limitations and issues that still need to be overcome.

My ne’er-do-well friend, CD, continues to pepper me with his clippings about “warming cults” and the ill-conceived notion that the world can improve global warming by reducing greenhouse gas. That’s why I started this issue with a warning that we have a way to go. CD is breathing down my neck and all I need is an “I told you so” when something doesn’t work. I get far more e-mails and read far more editorials and columns that celebrate change and new technology than he does. The information that CD sends is always focused on collapse, failure, economies of scale, political innuendo … never focused on source and course. These folks need to change. What are changes? Ride bicycles, recycle paper and film, use alternative or friendly packaging, buy cars that use non-fossil fuel, and I could go on for the length of this column. It isn’t politicians and Kyoto and Copenhagen, it is you and me and our common sense. Look at the change and success in Sweden: 95 percent fossil-free energy. Stop worrying about sequestering CO2. Generate less CO2 so we don’t have to sequester. This is so simple. The problem is that CD and his pundits don’t address the source of the cause. By the way, same writers, same message. OK, I got a bit carried away!

Those who can, do
Now two great stories that make me realize that all earthlings can participate in making improvements. A number of years ago I learned of a commitment to change and improvement at Spear, a label converter based in Mason, OH, USA. Spear is a global converter with a specific focus on the beverage industry. The company has operations in the US, the UK and Africa.

In 2008, Dave Dickerson, Spear’s director of Lean Six Sigma and Procurement, worked with his team to launch their own Lean Six Sigma project. He tells the story of change at Spear far better than I.

We officially deployed Spear’s global energy reduction team under our Lean Six Sigma program in 2008. This team is composed of key operational, maintenance and management personnel from each of our facilities, and meets on a quarterly basis to ensure continuity of efforts and sharing of best practices.

It’s difficult to quantify the discrete improvement from each project/initiative the team implements, as the energy metering systems in each of our facilities are measuring the entire plant “load” for each energy source – gas & electric. So we use the metric of “kWh/mmsi” to gauge our improvements in our energy management program (converting the gas usage portion to a kWh value). By normalizing the energy usage with our business in volume, this metric allows us to capture not only the capital improvements made to conserve energy, but also the scheduling, management and cultural decisions that improve our overall energy effectiveness.

Below are some of the recent improvements/initiatives made in our plants to use our energy more efficiently.
• Installed PFA destratification systems
• Replaced old T-12 and HID hi-bay lighting with T8 lighting
• Installed high-efficiency air compressors, replacing the older, less efficient ones
• Replaced numerous motors with adjustable-speed drive systems
• Installed motion/physical presence detectors for office area lighting
• Changed operational schedules to allow areas to be shut down when not in use
• Installed thermal recovery systems on process equipment for process/building heat requirements

Using 2008 as our baseline, this team has been successful in improving our energy effectiveness by more than 25 percent.

I subsequently learned that with the installation of the PFA destratification system, the Mason facility reduced gas consumption by 32 percent in 90 days. Wow.

All of Dave’s experience demonstrates that environmental focus brings a reduction in energy consumption, which means a reduction in cost. Pretty neat.

Then there is the story of Marshall Willoughby, who lives off the land in Gary, IN, USA. Willoughby will give tours of his house, by the way, which is a 120 square foot geodesic dome made from plastic foam panels covered with a thin layer of concrete. His laptop, tankless water heater and lights run on a bank of old batteries charged by solar panels, homemade windmills, or an Army Surplus generator powered by a self-built wood gasification unit. (Remember, I said economy of scale!) He pumps water from his own well. He puts his waste beside his garden beds, composting his own feces into the topsoil. Drums near his melon patch hold his urine, which is converted by bacteria into ammonia fertilizer. Willoughby says, “People are so damn ignorant about energy.” He finishes with, “You don’t want to be spending more calories to make food than you get from the good. If you do that in nature, you die.” Amen, brother!

CD, why can’t we have more Spears and Marshall Willoughbys? This is the kind of change we need. These are the innovators, the committed who have somehow heard the message of Lester Brown. May we all heed the need for change. The process may be challenging but the rewards and benefits huge.

Happy holidays and, most of all, a blessed 2012.
Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is