A solution to the climate and energy crises could be right above your head

By: - December 28, 2022 6:00 am
Man holding a piece of industrial pipe insulation inside a warehouse

Kenny Freeman, president of Petrin Corp., shows off a piece of industrial pipe insulation at the company’s warehouse in Port Allen, La., Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Wind and solar technologies often dominate the conversation on curbing the high cost of fossil fuels and their detrimental greenhouse gas emissions. Another less prominent and far simpler application could have a significant impact on the energy and climate crises. 

The potential solution, almost as old as time itself, is used instinctually by animals and humans alike: insulation. 

When Arctic foxes dig burrows into the snow to escape the frigid winds of a blizzard, the snow acts as a natural insulation by trapping a fox’s radiant body heat inside the burrow, according to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska. Polar bears, birds, squirrels — and a few humans on the Arctic tundra — all do the same thing.

The ancient Romans may have been the first to insulate hot water pipes, wrapping them in cork to keep warm water flowing to public bathhouses, according to the Renewable Energy Hub. 

Kenny Freeman has long touted the energy-saving and carbon-reduction benefits of industrial pipe insulation. Freeman is the president of Petrin Corp., a company headquartered in Port Allen that makes, sells and installs a wide array of insulation for industrial pipes, tanks and boilers.

Most people are familiar with the insulation in their homes or, as Freeman calls it, the “pink stuff” in their attic. It’s a critical construction component for the heating and cooling of any building, he said. 

A coalition of insulation trade associations commissioned a recent study by ICF International, a consulting firm for the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service and Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission, among others. It found simple insulation measures would have an impact equivalent to increasing current wind energy production 135% or offsetting 40% of emissions from all natural gas-fired power plants in the United States.

The study also determined insulation improvements to homes, buildings and industrial facilities would reduce annual carbon emissions by nearly 282 million tons. That’s more than the total annual emissions of all greenhouse gasses in the state of Louisiana (216 million tons). 

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While there are few studies focusing on insulation’s impact on carbon emissions solely in the industrial sector, the ICF study concluded pipe and mechanical insulation improvements to industrial facilities in eight major industrial sectors would save more than $126 billion in energy costs based on an average construction project cost of $3.77 billion. The average payback on this investment is about one year — and in some cases as little as six months.    

This could be especially impactful in Louisiana, where the industrial sector accounts for two-thirds of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and just 20 facilities produce roughly 28% of the state’s total emissions, according to LSU’s 2021 Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

Industrial pipe valve covered with removable insulation jacket
An industrial pipe valve with a removable insulating jacket on display at the Petrin Corp.’s office in Port Allen, La., on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

For prospective industrial clients, Petrin conducts energy audits of facilities, inspecting and measuring pipes and then calculating how much energy is lost through thermal radiation. 

Freeman explained many industrial facilities have miles of pipes in various sizes that carry chemicals at very high temperatures, from 250 to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s quite common for many pipes to have inadequate insulation or none at all, he said. 

As part of the energy audit, Petrin uses a new industry-standard software that gives the client an estimate of the cost to insulate the pipes, as well as the cost of the energy the client is currently wasting without insulation and even the amount of carbon emitted due to those uninsulated pipes.

The software uses a number of data points, from the size of a particular pipe to the average wind speed at the pipe’s location.

In a demonstration at Petrin’s Port Allen office, Freeman ran the software on a 2-foot section of 3-inch diameter natural gas pipe that maintains a temperature of 350 degrees. The results showed that using just that 2-foot section of pipe without insulation costs approximately $233 per year, and insulating it would bring the cost down to roughly $7 per year.

The calculation further showed the client would recoup their cost for the insulation and labor in just four months and would reduce the pipe’s annual carbon emissions from 1.6 metric tons to  just one-half metric ton. 

“You take that one little 3-inch pipe that’s uninsulated, and there’s hundreds of them, thousands of them,” Freeman said. 

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Petrin has been in business since 1972 with a steady base of clientele, and although the calculations and cost savings always astonish potential clients, Freeman said it’s exceptionally difficult to close those deals because a peculiar aspect of the human mind always gets in the way.

“Everybody sits there and goes, ‘That’s a no-brainer. That’s a no-brainer. We need to insulate,’” Freeman said. “And they will look at me and talk to me after the fact, but they put it off and eventually forget about it.”

People often don’t see those uninsulated pipes because they’re tucked away near a ceiling or under a floor, Freeman said. If they do see them, they often cannot see the massive amounts of thermal energy being lost in what he calls an “out-of-sight out-of-mind” situation.

“You wouldn’t leave your refrigerator door open for an extended amount of time,” he said, adding that it’s similar with uninsulated pipes except there’s no open door signaling that something’s wrong. 

That’s where regulation, either through incentives or mandates, could address the problem of energy waste. Freeman said he has met with Sen. Bill Cassidy to discuss the issue, and some of his industry associates have even gone to the White House to present their data. Their efforts have yielded few results. 

“We call ourselves ‘the forgotten industry,’” Freeman said. “They don’t see it. They don’t feel it. They don’t touch it. They don’t think about it.”

Man holding a piece of industrial pipe insulation inside a warehouse, forklift operating in background
Kenny Freeman, president of Petrin Corp., handles a piece of industrial pipe insulation manufactured at the company’s warehouse in Port Allen, La., Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

The National Insulation Association has a committee working to amend and integrate insulation standards into building codes, but more public awareness is needed about the benefits of insulation and the adoption of standards, Freeman said. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Climate Initiatives Task Force has a subcommittee focused on the efficiency of buildings, which includes things such as insulation, windows and building codes. 

Jacqueline Dadakis with the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council, who is on that subcommittee, told the task force in July that Louisiana consistently ranks worst in the nation on total energy costs for residential buildings. New building efficiency standards could have a significant impact on carbon emissions, she said.

The task force has just one year left to push for any significant change before it risks disbandment under a new gubernatorial administration.


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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