Foundry Energy Moves to the Front Burner

Kim Phelan

Greg Bray, president of AFS Corporate Member Electrical Controls & Systems Inc. and the Chair of AFS’s Engineering and Smart Manufacturing Committee, points out that since the advent of the Clean Air Act, American industry has come a long way and is better, cleaner, and more environmentally conscious than it’s ever been. Emissions of key pollutants are sharply reduced compared to 50 years ago.

But now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has trained its focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked to climate change. Foundries are advised to prepare now for the prospects of higher energy costs and additional reporting requirements.

In general, a foundry’s carbon footprint, which is related to its energy-use, is relatively small, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are fairly limited, compared to other sources. Foundries with publicly-traded customers have in some cases already been contacted to provide ESG metrics. If not now, at some point those metrics will include Scope 2 emissions that include GHG emissions from the generation of purchased energy and Scope 3 emissions that include other indirect emissions that occur either upstream or downstream.

EPA under the current administration has signaled that the entire manufacturing sector will eventually be required to significantly reduce its consumption of fossil fuel-generated energy as the U.S. moves toward carbon-neutral objectives. How agency directives and rulemaking will change will be dependent on political considerations and changes in presidential administrations.

According to Jeff Hannapel of The Policy Group, a consulting firm engaged by the American Foundry Society, EPA has the authority to regulate in this direction, referring to a 2007 court decision.

“What you’re seeing in the media about all this climate change––this is happening,” said Hannapel. “There are some regulatory requirements out there such as greenhouse gas reporting, but a lot of it right now is more talk than action, particularly on the federal level.”

“Carbon neutrality, or reduction in the case of the metalcasting industry, is a reality,” he added. “It’s coming in some form, in some way, on some timeframe, and the more folks can understand it and get ahead of this, the better off they’re going to be when it happens.”

A word to the wise: Customers––the big ones––could end up being a powerful influencer, lighting proverbial fire under the industry’s feet even before regulators find the matches. If you sell to publicly traded companies, you will likely be asked a number of questions regarding your own energy reduction and sustainability efforts.

Take a Deep Breath

Two important caveats should calm the consternation as AFS member foundries weigh their energy strategies going forward. First, metal castings are essential to society, woven into every facet of life and economy and valued highly by the government for their role in U.S. defense, competitiveness, and economic strength. By and large, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense understand the industry is limited by the laws of thermodynamics––it takes a certain amount of energy to heat metal to melting temperatures; a lot of energy. And an important reason they do understand is the focused, intentional, unrelenting education provided by AFS––including the division that Bray leads as well as individual member foundries.

Second, change may be coming, but not overnight. Hannapel said one message AFS has for regulators is: “‘Don’t go too far too fast.’ As we’ve done with emissions regulations, we have to communicate what is feasible for foundries. ‘We get where you’re going, but you can’t have it in that timeframe.’ There’s a certain amount of patience that’s going to be needed.”

Regulating utilities will come first, Hannapel speculated. The agency might set emissions rates so low as to force the use of alternative fuel sources other than coal, ranging from natural gas (which is not carbon neutral) to hydrogen and nuclear power. “The idea is,” he said, “‘if we change the source of energy for utilities, then whatever the foundry is consuming is a cleaner energy.”

DOE Works With AFS

In April, officials from the Department of Energy met with AFS representatives. Bray, along with AFS Technical Director Greg Kramer, as well as Bryant Esch and Marco Gonzalez from Waupaca Foundry were among the participants on the call, the latest chapter of an AFS-DOE relationship that has spanned decades. A DOE source said working with AFS is very appealing in that it enables his team to get a deeper reaching perspective on the entire metalcasting industry as they seek technical solutions to meet carbon benchmarks while remaining cost competitive.

As an example, he said, because carbon is produced in melting metal and heat treating, his office has prioritized cost-effective electrification of these processes, but with full realization that “the industry can’t snap its fingers” to alter processes. “We’re looking to help with that,” he said.

The April dialogue, while high-level and introductory in nature, (A) included discussion about one of DOE’s key energy supply-chain red flags, and (B) also brought to light a promising energy-reduction strategy raised by Gonzalez, corporate energy manager at Waupaca Foundry, that could benefit from DOE research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which it oversees and funds.

(A) Supply Chain Red Flag. Sources reported the DOE, in response to an executive order, has identified domestic production of large castings for the manufacture of clean energy as one of its top supply-chain challenges and priorities. Hence, one major segment of the April call with AFS representatives explored how the metalcasting industry could potentially handle the reshoring of enormous, 50- to 70-ton castings required in new, 13-megawatt windmills that will play a role in replacing some U.S. electrical energy currently generated by fossil fuel plants.

“The problem is, who can make the big castings for the big generators?” said Bray. “The capabilities in the U.S. of making castings that large are limited. [The DOE] wants to know, which foundries are willing to expand ... and we discussed the possibility of somebody building a new foundry to make the big castings. Just to build this type of foundry, not counting the machine shop, would require an investment of up to $150 million.”

Some on the call said they recognized the irony of carbon-generating, energy-intensive metalcasting (often vilified by environmental groups, media, and government officials) being urgently sought as a key supplier in the development of clean energy.

(B) Energy-Reduction Strategy to Study. During the April meeting, officials were also looking to the foundry experts to identify what would be the most impactful ways for the metalcasting industry to reduce its energy consumption and what could the DOE research in order to develop technologies to further that goal. That’s when Gonzalez advised that improving foundries’ yield, which averages 60%, is an area where substantial energy usage could be decreased. By applying DOE’s sophisticated modeling technology to study more efficient gating and risering systems, government researchers may be able to discover how to increase yield in the foundry process and reduce a great deal of energy wasted.

“Yield is a very well-known metric for the foundry business that basically refers to the amount of castings produced versus the total weight of iron poured into the mold,” said Gonzalez. “Because the melting is such an energy-intense process, if you find different ways to reduce your amount of melt or increase the amount of product finished with the same amount of melted metal, that will improve not only your productivity but also your energy consumption.”

Different Energy Solutions for Different Foundries

At the end of the day, exactly which kinds of low-carbon energy will replace or supplement natural gas power plants and the remaining coal-burning utilities in the future is not going to be entirely decided by individual foundries. Experts agreed, a combination of those sources will eventually make up the available offerings provided by utilities, and it will probably vary by geographical region.

Meanwhile, for the sake of both minimizing carbon footprints and shrinking their energy costs, some foundries have already begun to make plant changes that result in less energy consumption today.

“I would say they need to start looking at good old-fashioned efficiencies,” one DOE official said. “That might not sound like the sexiest answer, but I think it’s probably the most truthful.”     

Because every foundry is different, each one will need to assess feasibility of options on a case-by-case basis. What does that look like? Some examples from AFS Corporate members Waupaca Foundry and EJ, as well as others, include:

(1) Change out the lighting––EJ converted to 100% LED and reduced its energy consumption and realized huge savings, said Jerry Klooster, facility engineering manager at EJ.

(2) Implement waste heat recovery, like Waupaca Foundry did, for example, capturing and using heat generated from a cupola to warm a substantial part of the facility in wintertime, replacing the need to burn natural gas.

(3) Replace compressed air—one of the foundry’s energy consumers—by moving to a different type of collection system for cleaning baghouse bags.

(4) Switch from hydraulic systems to electrical servo drive type motors for operating various pieces of equipment.

(5) It almost goes without saying: keep equipment well maintained to perform at peak efficiency. Be vigilant in finding and fixing cracks, leaks and other sources of waste.

(6) Be creative – Waupaca Foundry’s Tell City, Indiana, facility increased the efficiency of its cupola year-round and improved melting ratios by installing a dehumidifier to condition air prior to introduction to the cupola, which mitigated the high air-moisture content they experienced during the variations in seasonal weather. The project was awarded by the DOE in 2020 for its innovation.
Again, what is cost-effective or feasible for one foundry may not be for others, hence the benefits of individually selected solutions.

You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

At the DOE, Industry 4.0 (and the data analytics it affords) is viewed as the next big revolution for foundry energy-conservation, creating an environment in which management knows in real time what’s going on everywhere in the plant and is able to perform process modifications on the fly for optimum efficiency using next-generation sensors, automation, and process controls.

Industry 4.0 for foundries is such an important concept that AFS is devoting an entire conference to the topic, July 26-27, at Eaglewood Resort in Itasca, Illinois, not far from O’Hare Airport. The conference is being presented with the involvement of the AFS Engineering and Smart Manufacturing Division, which is welcoming new members at this time.

An example, said Bray, the division’s chair, is metering the power consumption on a large mold line and viewing on a screen how much energy is being used compared to the equipment manufacturer’s energy parameters. “The thing most people probably don’t realize is that on all this big equipment, there are many little sub-areas that can pull more power and cause your machine to run at a higher rate than what it needs to. And because you never monitored it, you don’t know what’s going on.”

When EJ built a greenfield facility in Michigan, these kinds of metering devices were incorporated in the design criteria and installed with substation transformers, said Klooster, giving his team real-time energy-usage information at any of the company’s three locations––Elvira, Michigan; Ardmore, Oklahoma; and Saint-Crépin-Ibouvillers, France. Besides data tracking, EJ’s system also allows management to restrict someone from starting equipment during a time period the company wants to keep its energy usage low; with proper approvals, those constraints can be overridden. Any member of the management and engineering teams can access real-time trending on demand in a graphed, use-friendly dashboard.

Waupaca Foundry, which has voluntarily enrolled in several DOE industry programs over the years and is now working toward an aggressive, three-year energy-reduction goal, is similarly focused on utilizing sensor technology. “If you’re a foundry and you don’t have a good handle on your energy consumption and how you use it, you probably need to start there,” said Esch, the company’s director of environmental engineering. “You have to do your monitoring and understand what you have––otherwise, how can you ever effect any change?”

His colleague Gonzalez added, “You’ll be surprised how, beyond being more environmentally friendly, there will be a direct impact on your bottom line.”