Ceramic Industry

Kiln Connecton: Energy Crisis 101

October 1, 2005
Columnist Ralph Ruark offers new energy saving tools and strategies to combat rising natural gas costs.

Figure 1: Natural gas pricing is going through a panic phase.
As I write this column, Hurricane Katrina just ripped through the Gulf of Mexico a few days ago. The size of the storm was so large that it nearly filled the whole Gulf, leaving destroyed oil and gas drilling rigs in its wake, in addition to unbelievable suffering. Gasoline here in my hometown increased almost immediately to more than $3 per gallon; suddenly lines are forming at the gas stations, and some are out of fuel.

Wide-Reaching Impact

In the industrial sector, one client last week told me that he had just negotiated a new natural gas contract at $8 per MCF. He was pleased with that rate, since futures pricing had spiked to nearly $13. I am no economist, but there are a couple of things that seem pretty clear:
  • Our energy consumption in the U.S. is astronomical by any measure-per capita, per dollar of gross domestic product-any metric you want to name.
  • While the current natural gas market is obviously crazy, the long-term trend in fuel cost is something that even President Bush can recognize-it is going to be higher and higher.
  • Curtailments of fuel this winter seem almost assured. While the hurricane is the catalyst for panic pricing (see Figure 1), there is little doubt that when markets stabilize, pricing will be established at new levels that are significantly higher than they were previously. While some in our current oil-biased administration see this as a need for greater supply, I believe that every individual needs to see this as a need to conserve. Most plants can reduce their energy consumption by 5-10% with little pain or investment. We have wasted energy in the past because it was cheap and widely available. The converse is now true-we must conserve energy because it is expensive and potentially scarce.

Take Action

So, what should you do? Most plants have little real knowledge of the cost of operation of their kilns. The first step in conservation is figuring out where you are in the realm of energy consumption. Fuel consumption of kilns is highly variable, depending upon temperature, loading, type, size, etc. For example, the kiln that I worked on last week consumed around $1.7 million of natural gas per year. With few exceptions, no one at the plant had ever quantified this cost. With these numbers in hand, it's easy to see that a modest savings of 10% is pretty sizable. Here's what I suggest:
  • Improve operating know-how. Better operation of periodic and continuous kilns will save the average plant 5-10% in the energy use of kilns.
  • Dust off those energy savings proposals. Pulse firing retrofits can really pay handsome dividends through enhanced temperature uniformity.
  • Consider waste heat. Since 30-60% of your energy goes out of your stack, recuperation and preheated air can save big money.
  • Take a look at refractory coatings. Some companies claim fantastic savings for high-emissivity coatings of the kiln hot face lining. See what they have to offer, but get guarantees on the savings promised. I hope to have more on this in the future.
  • Evaluate the furniture-to-ware ratios. One of my occasional clients in Israel has developed high-porosity, high-strength materials that reduce the furniture weights by more than 70%. Other lightweight, low-mass kiln furniture is also commercially available. The fuel savings can be terrific.