VFDs made serendipitous saving for beef processor

Beef Products Inc.'s five plants produce more than seven million pounds per week of boneless lean beef, much of it in fast-frozen 60-lb. blocks with fat and moisture content controlled.

Beef Products Inc.'s (BPI) five plants produce more than seven million pounds per week of boneless lean beef, much of it in fast-frozen 60-lb. blocks with fat and moisture content controlled to match customer specifications. The company's top priority is to expand its production to 10-12 million pounds per week. While production increases take priority, Beef Products is finding ways to address energy issues.

"Despite today's prices, our energy costs are still less than 5 percent of our operating cost," reports Ron Yockey, president of Beef Products. "We are really focused on expanding our capacity, but we often are driven to address energy issues as a result of production capacity limits that we are working on, like a local limit to steam or water."

Beef Products' plant processes are modern and highly automated. Fat separation is performed in centrifugal separators, product pH is controlled, and the time between product entering the process and leaving as a complete frozen package is only 7-9 minutes. Given this automated nature of the plants, the energy management function is quite centralized at Beef Products. Internal reporting systems will measure energy utilization and cost per unit of product. The energy management program includes gas and electricity as well as water and wastewater.

Right now BPI's focus is on fuel energy sources, as it anticipates price increases for fuel energy this fall and winter. "We are going to see very large year-on-year energy cost increases this year," says Yockey, "and that gets our attention. But we look on energy management as an opportunity, not a crisis." BPI focuses on improving smaller steam generating equipment and also on re-evaluating a large set of energy projects that were proposed in the past but did not make economic sense at the time. While BPI relies on vendors to assist with equipment sizing and selection, it does selection and evaluation internally.

While fuel prices have risen, the price increases for electricity have been more moderate at BPI because most of its electricity comes from coal. "Our biggest electricity supplier is Nebraska Public Power, and its generation is mostly coal-fired," says Yockey, so the present high gas prices do not automatically drive up electricity prices for BPI. Though the electricity situation is better for BPI than for some other companies, it still feels the pain of energy price increases for all utilities.

The company also has a policy of performing a post-project audit for capital projects within one year after completion. In some cases this has been valuably informative. "We made a commitment to use variable frequency drives (VFDs) as a company in parts of our new facilities, especially in refrigeration compressors," says Yockey, "We did this for control reasons, not for saving energy, but as we looked at our results we could see significant improvement in our electric peak demand charges and so we have gone back into other areas and plants and installed some VFDs there as well." BPI is also evaluating VFDs for smaller plant motors. It expects the savings will be more difficult to measure, but it is pleased to see energy savings resulting from a technology that also gives more precise control over the production process.

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