Cooling produce and cutting costs

Photos courtesy of Anchor Warehouse Services.
From citrus in the winter to table grapes in the summer, produce cooling and processing plants use a lot of electricity. They can decrease it with modern system controls.

It’s 110 degrees outside, the table grapes Ramseier’s cooling rooms are running at peak demand. Many electric motors, some up to 300 hp, are all running at once, and the utility company is about to overload. Who do you think is going to get the bill for that?

Ramseier is the owner of Anchor Ware-house Services (www.anchorwarehouse.com) in the San Joaquin Valley, and his role in the agricultural community is to cool the grapes and various other produce down to cold storage temperatures until they can be shipped. He has about 200,000 square feet of warehouse in three facilities, and his electric bills at certain times of the year are up to 20 percent of his overhead.

Ramseier, who started his business five years ago and headquartered it in Exeter, came to a realization three years later that he had to get those energy costs down or his ability to compete would be diminished. Two years ago his electric rates went up 18 percent, and last year they went up another 5 percent. Rates will continue to rise, so he looked around for a way to not only reduce his overall electricity usage, but also to take advantage of Southern California Edison’s lower rates for avoiding peak usage, and utilize the utility’s rebates for installing equipment that curbs usage. He found an entire field called “energy management” that does just that.

He knew that part of his problem was that although his electrical equipment—consisting of a complicated array of condensers, evaporator coils, compressors, fans and all other electrical devices required for refrigeration—was somewhat automated, it was an “antiquated” control system. He also knew he didn’t have the expertise to upgrade it, so he located a company that specializes in making industrial facilities more energy-efficient. He hired Powerit Solutions (www.poweritsolutions.com), which had the newest hardware and software that can enable an entire facility to react to power needs and save the company money.

“Their system manages the refrigeration for us,” Ramseier says. He has reduced his overall monthly bill by 17 percent, achieved a 35 percent decrease in peak demand and reached payback on the new $150,000 control system in less than a year. He says the management of the system is easy and foolproof.

In particular, the control system features hardware that ties into, and software that monitors, his electrical usage and automatically shuts off nonessential equipment, such as isolated fans, to avoid going over into peak load rates. It was installed in June 2008 on Anchor Warehouse’s largest facility, the 100,000 square feet of storage space in two buildings in Porterville, and by August it was operating at 100 percent efficiency, Ramseier recalls. And, the 17 percent monthly cost savings came at a time when he was increasing his cooling volume by 15 percent.

“The proactive part was what we liked about Powerit,” he notes. He and his other managers can go into the software on their computers and set the proprietary system to any energy level desired, and the automated hardware will kick in and keep them from experiencing peak energy rates. Settings also account for essential cooling needs and can be set to always provide the energy required when a job is in progress. Ramseier didn’t have to add staff to run the system and a one-hour training session was all that he and his plant managers needed to learn to operate it.

This is one of three Anchor Warehouse Services facilities in California that will be made more energy-efficient with energy management systems, with major cost savings the result.

Powerit Solutions’ North American president, Bob Zak, says the power savings are available to any industry. In addition to cold storage facilities, his company has taken them to other agricultural facilities such as large wineries, fresh vegetable processing plants, corn snack food processors and dairies. Powerit, located in Seattle, Wash., aims at the crux of the matter: to bring energy savings while maintaining plant productivity at the same time.

“Industrial facilities have always been challenged with their energy efficiencies,” Zak says, and the traditional way to attack that is to install more efficient equipment and lightbulbs. This new control system technology is a method whereby that equipment and those lightbulbs can be controlled at maximum energy efficiency while at the same time taking advantage of “narrow opportunities” to avoid utility peak demand periods and facility energy spikes. That all translates to savings.

Powerit does this through hardware and software. The hardware is a “brain” box, the company’s proprietary Spara EMS system, which is connected directly to the utility meter and at the other end through either hard-wired or remote-controlled connections to almost all electrical motors and energy users in the 100,000-square-foot plant. This gives the system the ability to turn on or off individual motors and to vary speed of operation, if the motor is set up for that, or if a variable speed sensor can be installed on it.

Operators can change settings in the hardware with proprietary software to accommodate the plant’s needs as well as to read utility flow of electricity. The system will monitor electric flow throughout the facility and automatically adjust the nonessential equipment to keep it below the utility’s peak demand rate. This is called “demand response,” and it is one way the warehouse saves money.

“It would be impossible to do this manually,” Zak says, because changes in utility load take place constantly and within short periods of time, especially at peak demand periods in the summer. By synchronizing supply and demand, the plant can be run efficiently and with energy conservation in mind while keeping consumption below the point where the company would be charged for peak demand usage. The software allows operators to “view” the settings and operating levels, and to change them based on plant needs. He calls this an “intelligent demand response” system.

“As the growing season changes, you change from one setting to another,” Zak says, and Powerit is available for advice on how to maintain and operate the system at maximum efficiency. It is important for the plant operators to be able to fine-tune it.

The facility saves money in three basic ways. First, overall energy consumption, as measured in the monthly electric bill, will go down. Second, exorbitant charges for peak demand usage can be avoided, and those savings can be huge for facilities of this size because the utility charges heavily for high-energy loads when its power generation capabilities are taxed. And third, utilities offer hefty rebates as incentives to install these kinds of demand response systems. They can amount to thousands of dollars, and rebates can also be awarded in other areas, such as a changeover to more efficient equipment.

One of the advantages of hiring a company like Powerit Solutions is that its employees are versed in the complicated stipulations of utilities’ contracts and rebate programs. Powerit will even do the paperwork for the rebates. And, the software it installs gives verification that the utility’s program requirements are being met. At Anchor Warehouse, software based on Internet Explorer is installed on the computers so it can be anywhere the Internet is available. Zak says that future systems will be entirely Internet-based.

One of the most important points of this system, Zak says, is the short payback period. It is pretty impressive to prove a payback period of a year or less, as opposed to a solar power generating system that may take 15 years to pay back. There are several companies that specialize in this field.

Ramseier says that the energy savings have been so successful that he plans to have all three of his facilities married to Powerit control systems. The second one, 60,000 square feet, will be changed over this summer. He is not only saving energy, but he is also becoming more competitive as a refrigeration supplier as he lowers his costs.

“It is amazing,” Ramseier says. “It’s been really good for us, for the size of company we are.” And that is good for his bottom line.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.