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A bid to lower manufacturers' energy bills

No one needs to convince the people running Green Bay Packaging's box-making plant in Hunt Valley that energy efficiency pays off.

The last time they got assistance making nips and tucks to their process, they lowered electricity use 1 percent even as production jumped 20 percent. So when officials there got word of a new regional effort to help manufacturers lower energy costs, they rushed to sign up.

"Of course, I was like, 'Count me in!'" said Tyson Aschliman, the plant's general manager.

The program focuses on companies making products for a simple, weighty reason: Energy eats up big chunks of most manufacturers' budgets. Organizers see reducing that expense as one way to keep companies around in an era scarred by moves and shutdowns.

"Costs are such a key competitive issue that when we're saving it through energy efficiency, we're giving manufacturers a competitive advantage," said Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland, which runs the program. "And every manufacturer has money sitting on the table. Everyone."

The institute's $2.8 million effort, launched last fall, is funded with some of the money state regulators required Exelon Corp. to pay as a condition of its 2012 acquisition of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s parent. The $113.5 million fund, doled out by state regulators, is intended to jump start — or expand — innovative efforts to lower customers' BGE bills.

RMI ran a similar energy-efficiency program for manufacturers in 2012 that was limited to Baltimore County. Green Bay Packaging, one of the participants, got great bang for its buck with such fixes as plugging leaks in air compressor lines and adjusting motors to run only when needed rather than continuously.

The new program funds were funneled to RMI by the state's energy agency, which included the effort in its request for money from the merger. That allows for a broader reach across the region.

"These companies have their head down, they're just working constantly, they know there's something they should be doing with energy but they don't have the time to stop and do that deep dive," said Peter Gourlay, RMI's energy efficiency program manager.

So RMI is signing up firms who agree to commit to a six-month energy efficiency effort in exchange for expert help on ways to lower costs. It might come by addressing lighting, heating, motors or something else entirely, but RMI finds there's always a way.

The pitch to companies, Galiazzo said: "If you do nothing, you're basically making the decision to lose money."

It's a bigger issue for manufacturers than many other businesses — making products eats up a lot of power. The sector uses 30 percent of the country's energy, said Chip Yost, assistant vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

"As we can reduce those energy costs — use less energy, access more affordable energy — it really puts us in a place where we can grow our economy and create jobs," Yost said.

That's especially important in Maryland, where the manufacturing sector has about half as many jobs now as it did in 1990, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures. That's a loss of nearly 100,000 positions.

Among those jobs were about 2,100 at the Sparrows Point steel mill, closed in 2012. The plant, like all steel mills, was a voracious consumer of power. Parent company RG Steel owed BGE nearly $2 million when it filed for bankruptcy protection two years ago, one of many past due amounts.

For the early adopters in the RMI program, cutting back on energy use just makes bottom-line sense. Green Bay Packaging participated when RMI ran its year-long Baltimore County program, and company officials were thrilled with the results.

Aschliman, the general manager, said it cost about $4,500 for the nips and tucks the plant made then to its equipment.

"The cost to actually repair or modify them was very, very nominal when you took a look at the efficiency that it resulted in," he said.

Green Bay Packaging employs about 110 in Hunt Valley, where it makes everything from plain brown boxes to the illustrated cases that hold craft beer. This time around in its energy program participation, in addition to getting outside help, the company and other firms have internal "green teams" of employees empowered to figure out ways to cut back on waste.

"They're coming to me with ideas, potential energy savings for changing light fixtures, motion detectors and things we hadn't thought of before," Aschliman said. "Getting hourly and middle-level managers to think at that level was really cool for me to watch."

Maritime Applied Physics Corp., a Baltimore engineering firm that also makes boats and ship parts for the military, is another participant. Officials there plan to invest about $150,000 in energy-related upgrades — from new lighting to a higher-efficiency heating and cooling system.

Savings from the project should completely pay back the costs in less than five years, said Mark Rice, president of Maritime Applied Physics.

The employee-owned company has 60 workers, including lots of engineers who could have worked out a plan of attack on their own, he said. But they're busy on regular projects. Getting outside assistance was a big help.

Rice thinks the efficiency effort could reduce Maritime Applied Physics' energy use by 25 to 30 percent. He sees benefits to that beyond the financial impact.

"In this era of greenhouse gases, this is probably the most effective way we can make a difference in the near term," he said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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