S2 E9: Power Couple

February 5, 2018

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S2 E9: Power Couple (Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast)
U.S. Department of Energy

Tari and Kurt Emerson are like a pair of "energy detectives."

Both of them are constantly on the lookout for clues that could uncover energy waste and yield big cost savings at two major U.S. manufacturing companies. Tari works for Charter Steel, Kurt works for Harley-Davidson, and -- as you probably guessed -- the two are married.

In this episode, we learn how this "power couple" met, how they tackle energy-saving challenges, and how they've partnered with the Department of Energy's Better Plants Program, which has helped hundreds of industry partners save more than $4 billion over the past seven years.

 

Charter Steel employees participate in an energy treasure hunt organized with the help of our Better Plants program.
Tari Emerson (front row, right) and other Charter Steel employees participate in an energy treasure hunt organized with assistance from Better Plants.
Courtesy of Tari Emerson.

Managed by the Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office, Better Plants is part of the broader Better Buildings Initiative. Find out how Better Buildings works to improve the lives of the American people by driving leadership in energy innovation in the nation's homes, commercial and public buildings, and industrial plants.

Better Plants
Better Plants partners with leading manufacturers and water utilities to improve energy efficiency and competitiveness in the industrial sector.
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Transcript: 

TRANSCRIPT - S2 E9: Power Couple

(DIRECT CURRENT INTRO THEME)

(SOUNDS OF MACHINERY)

MATT DOZIER: You’re listening to the sound of American manufacturing at work.

(MORE SOUNDS OF MACHINERY)

ALLISON LANTERO: At the Charter Steel plant in Saukville, Wisconsin -- just outside of Milwaukee -- magnetic cranes scoop up giant fistfuls of scrap metal and dump them into massive hoppers.

(MORE SOUNDS OF MACHINERY)

DOZIER: The scrap is stuff like shredded automobiles and railroad wheels. Alarms blare as it’s carted along tracks to the plant’s electric arc furnace.

(MORE SOUNDS OF MACHINERY)

LANTERO: The furnace is basically a giant welding torch. It can reach temperatures over 3,000 degrees fahrenheit, and it roars and gives off showers of sparks as it reduces 100 tons of metal at a time to molten steel.

(MORE SOUNDS OF MACHINERY)

DOZIER: The liquid metal is shaped into long square beams, called billets, then rolled into wire as thin as 7/32nds of an inch. The rolling machine spews red-hot steel wire, like an enormous glowing slinky.

(MORE SOUNDS OF MACHINERY)

LANTERO: When that cools, it’s shipped out in 4,500 pound coils for use in everything from nuts and bolts to car parts. The steel plant floor is hot, it’s loud, and constantly in motion.

TARI EMERSON: I think it's exciting. Certainly from an engineering perspective it's really, really interesting because everything is done on a big scale. You have these enormous cranes, and there's so many different moving parts to the whole process.

DOZIER: That’s Tari Emerson, energy manager for Charter Steel. Tari’s something of an energy detective -- always on the hunt for clues that could lead the company to energy savings. It’s a big job, because making steel takes a lot of energy. In fact, the U.S. industrial sector accounts for 30 percent of all the energy consumed in America.

TARI: We're looking at energy, whether that's electricity or natural gas or carbon units, and how can we save that energy and reduce our costs.

LANTERO: Tari’s not the only person in her family with a knack for cutting energy waste.

KURT EMERSON: I'm Kurt Emerson, I work at Harley-Davidson's powertrain operations plant and I'm a senior engineer.

DOZIER: Kurt works in the division that assembles and tests the engines for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

(MOTORCYCLE ENGINE)

LANTERO: Except they don’t have that signature sound quite yet.

(SOUND OF ENGINE FACTORY TEST)

KURT: We're a little bit different than that, in that in the powertrain operations, we manufacture the engine and transmission. We make the heartbeat of the motorcycle.

(BLUESY MUSIC WITH ELECTRIC GUITAR)

DOZIER: As you might have guessed, Tari and Kurt are married. They’re high school sweethearts, as well as industry peers.

TARI: Our first date was prom in high school, and I know at that time in the fall, or in the spring, neither one of us had decided what we wanted to go into. Some of our mutual friends were going into engineering and I think for both of us it sort of sounded like a good idea.

DOZIER: Their career paths converged after college -- almost by accident.

KURT: We dated all through college, got married, then graduated and started into the workforce. We actually worked at the same company for a while -- she in one power plant, I in another power plant. That's where we really got into our energy fundamentals.

LANTERO: Their employers, Charter Steel and Harley-Davidson, have been in business a long time. And over the years, both companies have fine-tuned their manufacturing processes to improve product quality and keep prices competitive. Energy efficiency is a more recent focus, but one with a lot of promise.

TARI: The steel industry is very competitive, and certainly this is a company where there are good-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States. We certainly want to be a part of that, and so making sure we stay competitive in reducing our energy costs is a big initiative.

LANTERO: But opportunities to save energy can be challenging to spot -- and even harder to convince management that they’re worth the time and effort to address.

DOZIER: That’s one reason both Tari and Kurt have turned to the Department of Energy for a boost to their efforts. Their respective companies are participants in the Department’s “Better Plants Program” -- we’re talking manufacturing plants here, not the kind you grow in your garden.

(UPBEAT MUSIC WITH STRINGS AND PERCUSSION)

ELI LEVINE: We're really encouraged that Charter Steel and Harley-Davidson have been wonderful partners and have really taken advantage of much of what the program can offer.

LANTERO: That’s Eli Levine.

LEVINE: I lead the Better Plants Program here in the Advanced Manufacturing Office of the Department of Energy.

LANTERO: Better Plants is a nationwide effort led by the Energy Department that helps U.S. manufacturers slash their energy usage, reduce costs and become more competitive. It’s part of our Better Buildings Initiative, a broader umbrella of programs working to drive energy innovation in American homes, businesses and schools.

DOZIER: Generally, how it works is companies that partner with Better Plants commit to a target for reducing their energy consumption over a set period of time.

LEVINE: The goal, which is typically around 25 percent over a 10-year period, challenges partners to set a long-term strategic energy intensity reduction goal and allows them to set a long-term vision for how they can lower their energy footprint.

LANTERO: How do they do that? Well, there’s a variety of tools that Better Plants offers to help partners identify places where they could cut down on energy use.

DOZIER: One tool in their toolkit is the “energy treasure hunt,” which challenges staff and outside experts to scour a plant for buried chests of pirate doubloons. I’m kidding, of course. They’re looking for energy waste.

TARI: So it gives you an opportunity to see what things are being run when you're not producing anything, and maybe it's sort of a waste to have pumps running when you don't need them, lights on in areas that are not occupied, cooling water running when nothing needs to be cooled, that type of thing.

LANTERO: They start with the easy opportunities -- stuff that can be fixed relatively quickly and with immediate results.

LEVINE: That's the beauty of energy efficiency, is that oftentimes there's a very short payback and some really great opportunities and low-hanging fruit right off the bat.

DOZIER: Often, that low-hanging fruit can turn out to be pretty juicy. Tari said one early treasure hunt at Charter Steel’s plant in Cleveland had some pretty astounding results.

TARI: We had about 20 people attend that, people from all over our company and outside of our company, and we were able to find close to $900,000 worth of savings from that energy treasure hunt.

(TAPE) DOZIER: Yeah, that's some pretty serious savings.

TARI: Yeah, yep, exactly. And a lot of it was -- it's not looking at large capital investments. A lot of it is operational changes and doing things a little bit differently.

LANTERO: Now, it’s important to remember that energy doesn’t necessarily mean electricity. And in fact, some of the biggest energy savings can come from things you might not realize -- like compressed air.

KURT: Well, compressed air is probably the most expensive utility that a plant has. So by the time you take that air and compress it and deliver it to the end, it is seven times more expensive to use compressed air than it would be to use electricity.

DOZIER: Compressed air gets used at a lot of different points in Harley-Davidson’s manufacturing process.

KURT: We have some pneumatic pumps, there's fixturing devices for holding components, there's also blow-off on components to get either the chips or the cutting fluids off of the component. There's a whole range of uses.

(TAPE) DOZIER: Kind of like one of those cans you use to spray out your computer keyboard?

KURT: Yeah, exactly. (laughs)

LANTERO: Kurt said his company took advantage of another service Better Plants provides: a visit from specialized experts who helped train staff on how to use compressed air more efficiently.

KURT: We had an in-house training for compressed air and part of that, we received a list of opportunities which I think added up to around $200,000, but also identified the areas where we're best in class. So it's the good things, and where you can improve.

(SIMPLE, UPBEAT PIANO MUSIC)

DOZIER: Better Plants offers these training sessions on a wide range of topics. The idea is that companies can take the knowledge they gain from one plant and apply it throughout their entire operation. Sometimes, businesses will go one step further and open up a training or treasure hunt to other partners in the spirit of collaboration and sharing ideas.

LEVINE: It's a lot about showing them what's possible and allowing them to learn from each other, celebrating success, amplifying what they're doing. You can go out there and learn, what was an innovative strategy that this company took? It's been really encouraging to see a lot of these techniques and practices be replicated, and having partners share successful strategies with each other.

LANTERO: Now, we’ve only touched on a couple of the tools that the Better Plants program offers -- there are way too many to list here. But companies don’t have to figure it out on their own. Each new partner gets paired with an engineer through the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

LEVINE: And that person is going to help them set their energy baseline, set up a regression analysis to allow them to track their energy. You can't save what you can't measure.

DOZIER: From there, Advanced Manufacturing Office staff help partners figure out what solutions are the best fit for them -- from industrial energy assessments and certification toolkits to technologies developed by our National Labs, like 3-D printing and advanced sensors.

LEVINE: We want partners who participate in the Better Plants program to feel like they can leverage everything the Department of Energy and our National Labs can offer.

LANTERO: The Better Plants program began in 2011. Today, its partners represent roughly 12 percent of U.S. manufacturing energy usage, with nearly 3,000 facilities across all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

DOZIER: They include some of the biggest names in manufacturing, from General Mills to General Motors, as well as smaller companies like Pennsylvania’s family-owned Martin Guitar.

LEVINE: It's grown significantly since it first started. In the last year and a half, we've had roughly 40 partners join. More important than that, I feel like we've really tried to grow the program in terms of what we're offering our partners, as well...

LANTERO: And while the program is often collaborative, Eli said it’s also competitive.

LEVINE: Oh, no doubt. These companies are competitive, and if they see their rivals getting a competitive advantage through energy savings, they're going to want to take advantage of the same thing.

DOZIER: And all that work with the Department of Energy has paid big dividends for participants.

LEVINE: Better Plants partners have saved over $4 billion over the last seven years through these energy savings technologies, which is really important. In this global environment, all of these energy savings really go a long way toward improving our manufacturing competitiveness.

LANTERO: And not only have they saved a lot of money, but many early partners have already hit their initial targets and forged ahead with new commitments.

LEVINE: We're really encouraged that we've seen 43 partners out of our roughly 200 already achieve their goals. All these folks are ahead of schedule, and we've seen a good number of them come back to us and say, "All right, we've achieved our goal, we want to double down and we've set a new 10-year goal," because they see what's possible and they want to keep moving forward.

(MELLOW, CHEERFUL GUITAR MUSIC)

DOZIER: Tari and Kurt have seen the benefits of Better Plants partnership firsthand in the energy efficiency work at their companies.

TARI: I think that it's helped to accelerate the program. Like I said, we started this about 2 1/2 years ago, and I feel like without the Better Plants program we would not be nearly as far along this path as we would without their assistance.

LANTERO: In fact, both Charter Steel and Harley-Davidson won “Better Practice Awards” in 2017 for their outstanding energy-saving accomplishments.

DOZIER: I asked the two of them if being up for the same award led to any friendly competition at home.

TARI: I think for Kurt and I, we look at how can we collaborate. We don't necessarily compete on who gets what awards or things like that, you know, probably share information more than anything to help build up both of our careers and our ability to find savings in the workplace.

(TAPE) DOZIER: Were there ever dinner conversations when the kids where at home about energy, energy use, and your work, and I guess did your daughters ever get tired of it?

TARI: (Laughs) I think they think we're pretty nerdy, but I don't know that they got tired of it or not. There definitely were conversations at home, and we still do Sunday family dinners every Sunday night, fix a nice meal, and the girls come home and bring friends and boyfriends. So we'll have dinner conversation, and a lot of times at least part of that conversation will be energy or work-related.

LANTERO: In the end, the energy savings that Better Plants helps these companies find have a real impact on the lives of the people who work there.

KURT: Cost-competitiveness is the biggest reason that I'm interested in it. How do we reduce the cost of our manufactured goods so that we're competitive and we can maintain good family-supporting jobs here in the U.S.

DOZIER: The manufacturing sector accounts for a huge number of jobs here in the U.S. And, according to Better Plants, in 2016 more manufacturing jobs returned to the U.S. than left for the first time in decades.

LEVINE: Manufacturing is really critical to the U.S. economy and to the strength and economic security of the United States. More than 12 million Americans work in manufacturing in 2017. For every dollar that's spent in manufacturing, $1.89 is added to the economy.

LANTERO: So for companies like Charter Steel and Harley-Davidson, the stakes are high. Kurt and Tari said they’re proud of their work to make their plants more efficient, and welcome the challenge to find new savings.

(UPBEAT, AMBIENT MUSIC WITH SYNTHESIZER & PIANO)

KURT: We're moving forward, implementing a number of projects that we've got on the docket. There's no real magic bullet to this, it's just doing the blocking and tackling of everyday sort of activities to slowly but surely reduce the amount of energy that you use. It's easy at first, but after several years of it it becomes more and more difficult to be able to find those silver bullet opportunities.

(TAPE) DOZIER: Right, yeah. I’m sure the first couple ones are easy, “look, look, we can save here and we can save there.”

KURT: Right, right.

(TAPE) DOZIER: But the the more of those you find and solve, the harder it is to improve, I suppose.

KURT: There's only so many of those available (laughs).

DOZIER: But even as the search gets tougher, they know they’ll have plenty of support -- between the Better Plants program and the people they see every day, hard at work on the factory floor.

TARI: Walking around and looking at what's going on and talking to the operators and sort of the experts in the plant, you know, people have a lot of good ideas. And so that's part of the excitement, too, is talking to people and getting some new ideas and kind of a fresh way of looking at things.

LANTERO: For Eli and his colleagues in the Advanced Manufacturing Office, the mission is clear.

LEVINE: I think we want to always keep pushing. We want to set new, high bars for folks to challenge themselves, we want to recognize the leadership, we want to keep coming up with new ways to help partners achieve their goals.

(TAPE) DOZIER: And attract more partners?

LEVINE: Exactly. Keep growing the program, keep getting more folks involved in this and helping them save energy and save money.

DOZIER: As for Tari and Kurt, they’re considering a new personal brand.

DOZIER: Do the two of you ever refer to yourselves as a "power couple?"

(Laughter) KURT: Never.

TARI: No. (laughter)

DOZIER: I had to ask. I could see that being a good brand.

TARI: Right, right. We may have to use it going forward.

KURT: Yeah, sure. (laughter)

(SOFT, ELECTRONIC CLOSING MUSIC)

LANTERO: That’s a wrap for this episode, and this season of Direct Current!

DOZIER: Thanks to everyone who listened to season two. We’ll be taking a break to work on a bunch of new stories for season 3, so stay tuned for details.

LANTERO: In the meantime, if you have questions about this episode or any other episode you can email us at directcurrent@hq.doe.gov or tweet @ENERGY. If you’ve enjoyed listening to the show, why not share it with a friend or leave a review on iTunes?

DOZIER: Many thanks to Tari and Kurt Emerson, Eli Levine, Charter Steel, Harley-Davidson, and all the folks in our Advanced Manufacturing Office for their help on this story.

LANTERO: Thanks as well to the folks at Transition Music, Bob Haus and the Energy Department Public Affairs team. Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier and Me, Allison Lantero. Art and design by Cort Kreer. With support from Paul Lester, Ernie Ambrose, Gigi Frias, and Atiq Warraich.

DOZIER: We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.

LANTERO: We’ll see you next season. Thanks for listening!

DOZIER: Bye!