Mike Knapp knows how costly a small inefficiency can be to a business. The MBA student with a master’s in chemical engineering from Oregon State has learned that missing a bean every ten seconds on a food production line can result in several million dollars worth of product loss.

Knapp, along with 16 other engineering students, has been helping enterprises save money through the Energy Efficiency Center (EEC), a student-run and faculty-supported program in the College of Engineering that performs assessments for rural and industrial clients throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“Companies get several eyes evaluating their processes, and then we provide recommendations on where they can save on energy and productivity,” said Knapp. “It also gives the students real industrial experience on energy consulting while providing networking opportunities.”

Surprisingly, the EEC is not a product of the university’s recent sustainability efforts. The center has been around since the 1980s, with steady funding from the Department of Energy. Today, The EEC houses the Industrial Assessment Center and Rural Energy Assessment programs.

Junker on-site with EEC students. Students at the EEC can go on to fill many different positions relating to energy management.

The Industrial Assessment Center, the longer-standing program of the two, has conducted 600 manufacturing assessments in diverse industries—from logging operations to food processors—and recommended $131 million in cost savings. The Rural Energy Assessment program is a recent expansion supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and its clients range from wineries and nurseries to small farms and dairies.

EEC assessments are quite thorough. Once students have identified a client, they request utility statements and other energy-use documents for analysis. A student lead establishes communication with the company to understand its energy and production goals and needs. A small team performs the assessment and, depending on the scope, a faculty member also may be involved. The team looks at lighting, insulation, refrigeration, heating, productivity, and other pertinent areas.

Knapp said that no two assessments are alike. “One day I went to a brewery, the next day a food processing center. You learn to look at new problems all the time,” he said.

Data collected at the site assessment turns into a formal report of recommendations and suggestions for implementation, followed by a check-up to see how and where the company has integrated the recommendations.

“We prioritize the recommendations based on what we feel would be best for the company,” Knapp explained. “Sometimes that means the biggest money savers are last because they require a large capital investment. Another recommendation might be simply pushing a button to change the temperature, which could save $10,000 annually.”

Industries clearly benefit through reduced costs. The planet benefits from less strain on natural resources. And since students come from diverse engineering backgrounds and interact with a broad scope of clients, they often recommend creative solutions that specialized consulting firms might overlook. Another bonus is that industrial assessments are free, and rural clients pay only a small fee of about $370.

Most importantly, students receive tremendous benefit by learning real-world skills. Joe Junker, director of the EEC, experiences first-hand the center’s value to student development.

“Companies are benefiting from the students’ efforts, and at the same time, the students are benefitting from applying theory they’ve been consuming in class,” he said. “It’s really different to take a bunch of facts and run a calculation as opposed to walking into a facility and seeing a big, noisy machine and saying, ‘well, what do you need to know about this machine to understand how it works?’”

Such practical experience often translates into job prospects for EEC students. They have been hired by energy consulting firms, utility companies, and even by former clients.

“I’ve been told by students that when they’re trying to get their first job, they end up talking about what they’ve done here at the center because it really demonstrates something rare for students coming out of school,” said Junker.

Knapp agrees: “I quickly found out what I needed to do to improve my career path. The hands-on, practical side of this work is both what I enjoy and what will help me in the future.”

More information: http://mime.oregonstate.edu/facilities/eec

Story by Abby P. Metzger, Marketing Communications Specialist for the OSU College of Engineering