Plant renovations and upgrades are driven by many needs, from safety and sanitation to capacity upgrades and new product lines. But nothing's presently trendier than sustainability. Dig deeper, and energy conservation and savings provide the real driver.
Many experts in the field say food companies aren't going green just because it’s good for the Earth. There’s also a clear marketing advantage behind it, as well as cost savings when the focus is on reducing energy or waste. One of the sources for this story said many of the companies he’s in contact with are looking at sustainability initiatives “because Wal-Mart is requiring it.”
And why is Wal-Mart doing it? “That goes back to the marketing play,” he says. “They want people to think they care.”
There may well come a time when a company no longer gets attention for being green. But it’s hard to envision a time when energy efficiency will cease to matter. The current costs of fuel, food and materials aren’t just threatening profit margins but driving innovation.
"The thing we're seeing today different from our projects in the past is the general focus on sustainability, particularly because it incorporates energy savings as a part of it," says Vince DiPofi, senior vice president in charge of food and beverage for the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) firm SSOE Inc., Toledo, Ohio. "Food plants are always looking at efficiency increases of all kinds."
Of all the green moves, energy savings tends to "pay off a lot faster than water and other conservation projects," says Mark Swanson, business development manager for food and consumer products for AEC firm Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co., Kansas City, Mo.
Companies should approach an energy savings/conservation project as they do any other project — with an action plan. Determine a baseline, evaluate current practices/demand, develop an improvement/savings strategy. “See how you are going to continually improve and sustain conservation and savings,” says Larry Ware, who used this template during his decades in the meat industry. Now as business development manager with Praj Schneider Engineering Co., Omaha, Neb., he says high-horsepower motors are some of the biggest energy hogs in meat processing plants; so are refrigeration systems.
If long-term thinking guides your corporate culture, two well-known programs, LEED and Energy Star, offer comprehensive programs for eco-friendly benchmarking. The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification helps new and existing plants achieve higher overall performance in an environmentally conscious manner, whether or not a capital-intensive renovation or upgrade is planned. More limited to an energy-only focus, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Star program offers certifications and can be used for later LEED efforts. DoE offers additional resources through its Industrial Technologies/ Save Energy Now initiative.
“The main thing we emphasize is the business case for a high-performance building that does all the things you need it to do with a minimal amount of waste,” says Mike Opitz, director of LEED implementation at the Green Building Council. He says he “fully understands” that companies get marketing value out of their certifications as well as greater overall green efficiency.
“The thing LEED drives home is that this is this is not just about the marketing buzz,” adds Darryl Wernimont, partner at the Haskell Co., Jacksonville, Fla. “And people also need to understand that registering a project is only an initial step in the LEED certification process. Running efficiently requires ongoing maintenance.”
Whether or not you pursue a national certification for your plant, the best first step for even these national programs is usually a step through the doors of a local utility or energy company.
"I would start at the state energy office," says Paul Zoby, vice president with the energy management firm American Energy Assets (AEA), Denver. Most states have a “very proactive, locally focused energy office with lists of providers they've worked with. They're also an excellent source for locating available funding and incentives, because they're as motivated as the end-users to put to work the funds that they have at their disposal.”
Local utilities serve an overlapping role, and increasing numbers of them offer free classes and preliminary walk-throughs, often free of charge, as a starting point. For example, DTE Energy, a Detroit gas and electric utility, performs such tours. “We won't re-engineer your process line or boiler, but we are trained to recognize areas that might be improved upon, and help you find some areas to pay special attention to. Then we can help you find the engineering consultants you might want to use," says Bob Fegan, principal energy management consultant.
Through DTE, Fegan also is active with the Energy Solutions Center, a consortium of more than 60 U.S. utilities, municipal energy authorities and a sub-group, the Food Processing Consortium, which is helping add more specificity to these efforts.
Fegan personally created something he calls Energy TechPro, which he describes as an "electronic textbook or encyclopedia of energy technologies and know-how. It trains you to do your own energy audits."
The software textbook-template started life as a side project for training utility personnel; it is now free to DTE customers and available for sale to others. While it's not a software application for plugging-in numbers and maintaining energy usage trends, this software tool is rare if not unique; it’s hard to find commercially available tools of this nature.