It's difficult deciding which gee-whiz feature to point out first about Frito-Lay's Casa Grande, Ariz., plant: the 36 acres of solar cells in an adjacent field; a sewage treatment plant big enough for a small town; the huge boiler that burns landscape waste from a 75-mile radius, providing all of the plant's steam.
After two-plus years of groundbreaking investment in "green" and energy-efficient technologies – some of them experimental – the PepsiCo division last October declared the Casa Grande facility had reached "near net zero" – meaning it's run primarily on renewable energy sources and recycled water while producing zero landfill waste.
The Casa Grande plant is largely off the grid. Off several grids, for that matter. In the process, it's saving money (the company would not specify how much) thanks to investments in four areas: renewable energy (both steam and electricity), recycled water, fleet efficiency and landfill reductions.
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Some plants go for green, some for energy efficiency, some to reduce waste discharges to avoid municipal surcharges. In Casa Grande, PepsiCo and Frito-Lay have gone beyond those laudable goals to create a plant that could very well sustain itself – nearly anywhere in the world – even if it loses electrical service, sewage treatment and other municipal services and even water.
And that last point, doing without water, is a very real concern in some parts of the world. But those parts of the world still eat snacks. So that's one less barrier to PepsiCo's penetration of emerging markets.
It's one thing for Kettle Foods to get LEED Gold for a 73,000-sq.-ft. greenfield potato chip plant on five acres in Wisconsin (and quite commendable). It's quite another to get LEED Gold and to approach net-zero in a 28-year-old, 160,000-sq.-ft. plant on 283 acres.
The result is part showcase plant but also part ongoing experiment. There are some remarkable things working well in the Casa Grande plant … and a few that have proven tricky or difficult to cost-justify, at least under current circumstances, and probably will not be replicated elsewhere.
"Almost four years ago, Frito-Lay drew a map of all the locations that were doing various sustainability projects," Al Halvorsen, senior director of environmental sustainability for PepsiCo, told a group from Food Processing when we visited in February.
Indeed, there are many sustainable manufacturing projects throughout the Frito-Lay organization. A 1986 cogeneration system in Kern, Calif., recycles waste heat, providing both steam and electricity and raising the plant's energy efficiency to 74 percent. The Rosenberg, Texas, plant in 1999 began using gas from a nearby landfill to replace some natural gas. The San Antonio, Texas, plant pioneered an oven heat recovery system using the exhaust heat from ovens – some plants use the recaptured energy to heat the oil in fryers while others use it to heat their buildings. Several facilities have solar arrays.
"We thought, ‘What if we took the best ideas and tried them all in one spot?' " Halvorsen continues.
When the Casa Grande project began, Halvorsen was director of environmental sustainability specifically for Frito-Lay North America. He's very familiar with the Casa Grande plant. It was the first plant he was assigned to when he joined Frito-Lay in 1988 as part of the maintenance resource department.
The Frito-Lay division conceptualized the goal of approaching net-zero. Casa Grande was chosen after a review by both PepsiCo and the U.S. Dept. of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "The NREL analysis mapped and compared renewable technology to the availability of renewable sources at 10 U.S. Frito-Lay locations," Halvorsen says. "We then used this data along with company knowledge – size of facility, availability of land, etc. – to pick the Casa Grande plant."
The plant had received LEED Gold certification, the first for a renovated food production plant, in 2010. It makes Lay's and Ruffles potato chips, Fritos corn chips, Tostitos and Doritos tortilla chips, SunChips and Cheetos.
The Arizona desert is an ideal place to try some of these things. The sun shines 330 days a year on those solar cells (as well as the four other solar power systems), and water is scarce in a desert community an hour south of Phoenix that suddenly has swelled in population.
"We had a vision three years ago that it would be possible to take Casa Grande off the grids," he says – meaning removing the plant as much as possible from supply systems for electricity, water and natural gas. The results are: