Better Plants Program leads industry partners on sustainability journey

As the United States transitions to clean energy, the country has an ambitious goal: cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by the year 2030, if not before. One of the solutions to help meet this challenge is found at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the Better Plants Program.

For the past decade, the Department of Energy has operated Better Plants under the Better Buildings Initiative, which is designed to improve lives by driving leadership in energy innovation and partnering with public and private sectors to make the nation’s homes, commercial buildings and industrial plants more energy efficient.

The industrial component of the initiative, coordinated by ORNL, focuses on working with manufacturers and water and wastewater utilities to set long-term goals to achieve significant energy improvements. Researchers Sachin Nimbalkar, technical support lead, and Thomas Wenning, program manager for industrial energy efficiency, have steadily delivered results based on one simple guideline.

“We like to say we meet industry wherever they are on their sustainability journey,” Wenning said. “It doesn’t matter how efficient they are at the beginning of their work with us. It matters that the conversation has started, and they are walking with purpose down that pathway of improvement. Ultimately, when their energy efficiency improves, we see that costs decrease and productivity increases.”

Small changes, big impact

More than 250 companies as of 2021 have embarked on the path towards improved energy efficiency by becoming Better Plants Program partners, representing more than 3,200 facilities across all 50 states. Cumulatively, these partners have saved $8.2 billion and amassed 1.7 QBtu, or quadrillion British thermal units, in energy savings since the start of the program, as noted in the most recent progress report.

“Massive energy savings result from working with the industrial sector,” Wenning said. “The fact of the matter is you can make major impacts with just a few facilities. We have many examples where slight modifications of a process or facility have resulted in savings that are equivalent to taking thousands of homes and buildings off the grid. We have a whole range of tools and resources that we’ve built to help any industry.”

The Better Plants Program has worked with a diverse portfolio of well-known national industry names, as well as those locally owned and operated, including cement plants, steel mills, food processors and automobile manufacturers. No matter their size, the journey for each begins with the same steps.

“It all starts with helping companies set a voluntary goal to reduce their energy intensity,” he said. “We work with them to assess their current progress, help them establish meaningful baselines and tracking methodologies, identify areas to improve their internal energy management and sustainability programs. We do onsite visits to deliver training and perform an energy assessment at their facilities.”

After Better Plants assessments, Wenning and Nimbalkar have seen companies make inexpensive changes to processes that have led to big improvements in energy efficiency.