Q&A With President of ABB Motion Services Erich Labuda

Industry can do more to increase motor-driven system efficiency, says Labuda. Here, he identifies the biggest untapped energy saving opportunities

Recognised as society's hidden workhorses, electric motors play a pivotal role in a variety of industries. From powering fans and pumps to compressors, they provide clean water, heating and cooling and are key to manufacturing clothes, food and other products.

Erich Labuda has been with ABB for more than 12 years and has been in post as President of the Motion Services division at ABB since 2023. He and his team work to keep the world turning, all while saving energy with its world-leading high efficiency electrical motors and drives.

He believes that industry could — and should — be doing more to increase the efficiency of its motor-driven systems. This comes after a recent ABB study found potential for 31% energy savings per motor by auditing more than 2,000 motors from a variety of industrial sectors. The payback for certain efficiency upgrades, ABB discovered, is as little as three months in certain countries, purely from energy savings alone.

Here, we ask Labuda how motors can play a pivotal role in net zero efforts worldwide by focusing on energy efficiency.

Why are electric motors important in the fight against climate change?

The estimated more than 300 million industrial electric motors worldwide consume almost half of the world’s electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). So, to reduce their environmental impact, all these motors should eventually be powered by renewable energy.

The challenge is that developing green infrastructure is slow, and we don’t have much time until we reach our 1.5°C global warming target.

Fortunately, there is a more immediate solution — improving the energy efficiency of the already installed motors. This simultaneously reduces energy consumption and overall costs. Improving energy efficiency is so important that the IEA announced that we need to triple our investment in energy efficiency by 2030 if we are to achieve Net Zero.

Investments that improve the efficiency of industrial electric motors could reduce global electricity consumption by 10%, according to the association. This reduction equates to more than 90% of the entire EU’s annual consumption. 

What’s stopping businesses from investing in energy efficiency?

Industrial businesses want to be more energy efficient, but they often don’t know where to start. ABB ran a survey in 2022 which found that over 95% of industrial businesses are willing to invest in energy efficiency, but less than half feel they have enough information to take action. This is especially true for motors because most industrial facilities have hundreds of them. So, where and how are you supposed to start?

This is where energy audits come in — they help businesses make better decisions on ways to save energy, lower CO2 emissions and boost overall sustainability.

What are energy audits and what role do they play in improving energy efficiency?

Energy audits enable industrial businesses to precisely identify which motors have the highest potential for energy savings. This helps them create a strategy for improving energy efficiency in a way that maximises payback.

You need data to create the business case. So, energy audits start by gathering performance and efficiency data from motors. This information can come from different sources and systems that are already being used or you can digitally connect the motors to gather data regularly and remotely.

Next, a specialist looks at how each motor is performing right now and checks it against what could happen if energy efficiency improvements were made. This might mean resizing the motor, upgrading it or installing a variable speed drive (VSD) to control the speed or torque of the motor to match the exact demands of the task. After that, the specialist works out how much energy and emissions could be saved and what kind of financial benefits you could expect from making these changes.

What’s stopping businesses from having an energy audit?

The perceived cost of upgrades is often the barrier stopping businesses from auditing their motors in the first place. However, because of the energy savings, many upgrades recuperate their cost in a matter of months. Considering that a motor typically lasts 15 to 20 years, businesses can save a lot from investing in their efficiency.

One example is Tarkett, the Swedish flooring manufacturer. It requested an energy efficiency audit of the motors in its factory to find a way to reduce energy consumption. The audit identified ten motors where upgrades would increase their efficiency from 80% to 95%. By acting on this guidance, Tarkett now saves 800MWh annually. This is equivalent to charging 68 million smartphones, equivalent to every smartphone in Germany.

Because of the energy costs at the time of making these calculations, the projected payback of these upgrades was 18 months or less. 

What’s the potential global impact of energy audits?

We at ABB wanted to identify the potential global impact if the industry started performing more energy audits and acted on their suggestions. So, we recently audited more than 2,000 industrial electric motors from a wide range of sectors and applications.

We found an average energy-saving potential of 31% per motor if they were upgraded according to the suggestions of the audit. In certain countries, this could result in a full payback in as little as three months. The biggest energy-saving opportunities came from motors operating at fixed speeds without a VSD. 

Across all 2,000 motors, we identified an energy-saving potential of 2.1TWh over their 20-year lifetime. This would be enough to power a city of 1.25 million European houses for a whole year. 

The potential for cost and emissions savings varies between countries because of differences in energy mix and pricing. But consider if all the 2,000 motors audited were operating in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Based on November 2023 data, a 2.1TWh energy saving would avoid 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and have a payback of six months. Alternatively, if all the motors were operating in Germany, this would save 940,000 tonnes of CO2 and have a payback of just three months. These savings could offset the emissions of a coal plant for two months in Germany and three months in the UAE.

This study just looked at 2,000 industrial electric motors, a small portion of the 300 million globally. So, by extrapolating our findings, it’s easy to see the transformative impact of upgrading inefficient motors worldwide. By conducting energy audits and acting on their suggestions, we can cut costs and accelerate our transition to a low-carbon society. 

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