Armstrong International fired up about carbon free

Fifth-generation company scales up its work helping manufacturers achieve net-zero emissions.
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Armstrong service professionals help customers with the decarbonization process. Courtesy Armstrong International

A thermal utility solutions provider in Three Rivers said a carbon-free future is a hot topic that’s not going anywhere as the pace of climate change accelerates.

Founded in 1900 and now in its fifth generation of family ownership, Armstrong International is a provider of thermal utilities solutions that works to increase energy efficiency and reduce environmental emissions for its clients, which include consumer goods, food and beverage, pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing companies, as well as the higher education, health care, hospitality and agribusiness sectors.

Armstrong’s thermal utility solutions include products and services for steam and hot water system management, such as water heaters, control valves, heat pumps, steam traps, monitoring technology, software and more.

The company has about 400 employees at its headquarters in Three Rivers — a small town about 70 miles south of Grand Rapids — and just under 3,000 workers worldwide across 20 manufacturing, sales and service centers in three regions: the Americas; Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Asia.

Doug Bloss. Courtesy Armstrong International

Doug Bloss — president and CEO of Armstrong and a member of the founding family’s fourth generation — said he believes the company is “more relevant than ever” because of the growing number of companies taking net-zero pledges at a time when 95% of thermal utility systems used around the world still operate on fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal or oil.

“As a multinational, we’re one of the few companies in the world with the skills to assess a client’s steam hot water systems and assist them with removing carbon from their thermal energy,” Bloss said.

“Our customers, especially in the consumer goods segment — the Procter & Gambles of the world, Unilever, Nestle, Kraft Heinz — have all made pledges to be carbon neutral or carbon free by certain dates. The most aggressive dates we see are 2030, (and) that’s only eight years away. These are leading companies with hundreds of facilities around the world, so you can imagine the challenge.”

Armstrong has offered a service segment alongside its product sales for about 25 years, but within the past three years in particular, the company has accelerated its work helping customers develop a “roadmap to sustainability” as it pertains to reducing carbon emissions. 

“The last three years have been bananas,” Bloss said.

In addition to the products and systems it offers, Armstrong offers a three-stage service process: minimize, optimize and decarbonize.

The first stage involves minimizing energy consumption in a facility by replacing end-of-life thermal systems with new, energy-efficient equipment.

The second phase involves analyzing the places in a building where energy is being wasted and recapturing it for other uses.

“We would go in and look at where heat is being wasted — in virtually every facility, there’s waste heat — and recover that, to displace heat that’s being done by fossil fuels. … We’ve found that in most facilities — food, pharmaceutical, beverage, consumer products — we can reduce the carbon footprint by about 50% with optimization strategies,” Bloss said.

Decarbonization is the most complicated of the three stages, he said. Whereas with electric utilities, companies can buy renewable power purchase agreements that ensure all electricity powering a building is being generated from renewable sources, it’s more difficult to take fossil fuels out of heating and cooling.

Some of the technologies Armstrong uses for decarbonization, from itself and other manufacturers, include industrial high-temperature heat pumps, which recover a facility’s low-temperature wasted heat and increase the temperature as high as 248 degrees by pumping a working fluid between two heat exchangers; thermal storage, in which high-temperature heat can be stored for later use in a facility; and biogas boilers.

An emerging zero-carbon technology Bloss believes will be the wave of the future is thermal hydrogen, but industry has a journey ahead of it before widely adopting this, he said.

Armstrong International is a member of the Renewable Thermal Collaborative, a group working toward a carbon-free future in the thermal energy industry. The coalition estimates energy used for heating and cooling represents 50% of total global final energy demand and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. In the U.S., it estimates heating and cooling account for more than 25% of total energy use across the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. 

These statistics point to the importance of coming up with solutions if the world is to meet its climate targets, Bloss said.

“Companies are making decisions based on practical execution — both financial funding and the evolution of technology that might be available a little later. The oil majors are going to be participants. These are big companies with lots of capital and resources that are facing an existential threat to their business, and so they’re going to move large capital to create hydrogen that would displace natural gas and be piped in the natural gas pipelines,” he said.

“I think the first movers are also going to benefit from consumer embrace. That’s why you see a lot of the consumer products companies want to win shelf space by being the first to pledge on their bag of chips or on their bar of soap, ‘Produced carbon free.’ All indications are there is a growing number of consumers, especially younger consumers, who value that type of thing and will favor you, even at a higher price. There’s a financial stake in moving quicker, and that’s why many companies are picking ambitious goals.”

After the Paris Climate Accords were adopted in 2015 and took effect in 2016, Armstrong became an in-demand source for implementing said goals all around the world, making these times “the most relevant” and “highest-growth period” in company history, Bloss said. While the company works with global players, it also has helped large companies with West Michigan ties, such as Pfizer and Amway, implement their carbon-reduction goals.

Bloss said he wishes he had another 30 years left in his career to see a carbon-free future come to pass, but he is excited to see what the next generation does.

“(This shift) is really driven by consumers, shareholders, investors, institutions like banks and insurance companies who are mandating that their clients move in this direction, (and) the SEC itself has got disclosure and transparency requirements,” he said. “I think this is a point of no turning back, and it’s an exciting time.”

More information about the company and its work is at armstronginternational.com.

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