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The Key to Koch’s Surge in EPA Awards: Business As Usual

April 13, 2021

min read

Koch’s work to use resources as efficiently as possible isn’t new. But within these efforts, boosting energy efficiency has become even more of a priority because of its benefits in reducing emissions and saving energy. 

“We operate energy-intensive businesses, but efficient use of resources is part of our operating vision,” explains Mike Younis, director of energy optimization, who is responsible for energy knowledge sharing across the Koch enterprise.

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Koch has invested $1.5 billion in energy efficiency improvements across U.S. facilities since 2015. Through 2020, Koch tracked more than 100 energy efficiency projects and initiatives, more than 1,500 since 2011 in the U.S alone. Newly achieved certifications from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledge Koch’s industry-leading work in the field.

Five Koch facilities across four diverse industries have earned EPA's ENERGY STAR® certification in the past 12 months. The award certifies that the facilities performed in the top 25% for energy efficiency within their industries — refining, fertilizer, pulp and flat glass — and meet strict energy efficiency performance levels set by the EPA. This work also earned Koch the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2021 ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award for the second time since 2017.

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The company’s Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota, which supplies most of the transportation fuels used in Minnesota and a significant portion of the fuels used throughout the Upper Midwest, performed in the top 25% of all U.S. refineries for energy efficiency. This is the second time the facility has achieved that level of performance. In the past five years, Pine Bend has improved its energy efficiency by 10%, making Pine Bend one of the nation’s most efficient refineries. The team made energy efficiency central to plant culture. It has manifested in big projects, such as installing a combined heat and power (CHP) system that captures heat energy to minimize waste as it generates roughly 40% of the required energy to power the refinery’s daily operations. This commitment has also yielded results in subtler ways, such as using high-efficiency lighting in the refinery’s more than 18,000 lights to help reduce energy consumption. 

“These projects help continue a 20-year trend of lowering key emissions and a relentless focus to improve the efficiency of our operations,” says Geoff Glasrud, vice president and manufacturing manager for the Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend refinery.

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Pine Bend isn’t the only Koch facility attracting attention for its energy efficiency. In 2020, Georgia-Pacific’s Leaf River cellulose mill in New Augusta, Mississippi, became the first U.S. pulp mill to earn the EPA’s ENERGY STAR certification, recognizing the facility performed in the top 25% of similar facilities nationwide for energy efficiency. The mill, which makes fluff pulp used in a variety of absorbent products such as baby diapers, is capable of generating all the energy it needs using steam produced from 100% biofuels. The biofuels are largely byproducts of the pulping process the steam itself is fueling. The mill takes the additional step of using carbon fuel also generated as a byproduct from the pulping process to produce the steam.

“The Leaf River Cellulose employees consistently use their knowledge and experience to create newer and more efficient ways to do their work, and this includes energy efficiency,” said Chuck LaPorte, the mill’s general manager.

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Another standout is Koch Fertilizer, a leading fertilizer producer, distributing more than 10 million metric tons of product annually. Two of its facilities — in Beatrice, Nebraska, and Enid, Oklahoma — earned EPA's ENERGY STAR certification for reaching the top 25% in energy efficiency. Beatrice was one of the first two fertilizer plants nationwide to achieve this when the certification became available in 2019. This year, Beatrice and Enid — Koch Fertilizer’s largest production facility and one of the largest fertilizer production plants in North America — both received recognition for top 25% performance. Efforts to boost efficiency through new process technologies, reconfiguring processes for efficiency, and upgrades to vital equipment such as converters, compressors, reformer coils and heat exchangers have made these two of the most energy efficient fertilizer production facilities in the nation. The facility teams are continuing this momentum by examining potential opportunities in areas such as new sensors, modeling and more transformative improvements. 

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Koch’s Guardian Industries flat glass manufacturing plant in DeWitt, Iowa, has also earned EPA's ENERGY STAR certification for being in the top 25% of its peers. The Guardian team managed energy strategically, efficiently operating the furnace by engaging variable frequency drives and adding power factor correction, as well as upgrading lighting across the 75,000-square-foot plant. These efforts led to greater efficiency for the 25-year-old DeWitt plant, expanding glass production at the same time. DeWitt makes high performance glass for use in exterior (both commercial and residential) and interior architectural applications, as well as transportation and technical products for homes, offices, cars and some of the world’s most iconic architectural landmarks.

 

How does one company achieve such results across seemingly disparate industries?

In his role as an energy leader, Mike understands best practices of energy efficiency and coordinates and communicates that knowledge to Koch’s paper mills, fertilizer plants and other facilities. It’s his job to make sure these disparate operations understand what they can do to improve their energy efficiency. With so many disparate kinds of facilities, the company’s ability to share and apply best practices across industries has made all the difference.

“It really boils down to Market-Based Management [the business philosophy behind Koch Industries’ long-term success], accountability and responsibility,” Mike says. “That’s why it works at glass plants and refineries and pulp mills and fertilizer plants. We have built knowledge processes so that we understand where the energy goes.”

Mike travels the country (more often virtually these days) identifying plants and mills that could be candidates for energy efficiency reviews and works with site employees  to track, measure and analyze the data surrounding energy usage. The work is based in 13 best practices that guide the Koch Industries Energy Program.

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While EPA certifications are important for Koch, they also can be a source of civic pride in the communities where these facilities are located, Mike says.

“In a small town, when there’s a paper mill, and the paper mill wins an award from the EPA, that’s a big deal to the town,” he says. “When the plant is successful, the town is proud. Our goal is to keep renewing the benefit of having us in their neighborhood.”

Environmental responsibility often has a ripple effect beyond a facility’s emissions or bottom line, Mike asserts. At pulp and paper mills, for instance, energy is the third biggest expense after labor and materials. Less energy consumption at a Koch facility makes power available for other uses and holds down the cost of the important products the company makes.

“Energy efficient operations are important because they reduce emissions, and that’s good for everybody,” Mike says. “It’s good for the business, it’s good for the neighborhood, and it’s good for the community."