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Food Processors Scramble to Reduce Carbon Footprint

Oct. 8, 2008
Operating costs and the environment have processors scrambling to reduce carbon emissions.

The race is on for food processors to reduce their carbon footprint, both for financial reasons and to reduce their company’s environmental impact. With fuel and energy costs on the rise, reducing the use of electricity, natural gas, diesel fuel and other energy sources is both good business and a laudable environmental act.

“Carbon closely mirrors efficiency, whether it’s use of fuel, electricity or other processes. What we’re really talking about here is efficient operations,” says Kyle Tanger, president/CEO of Clear Carbon Consulting Inc. (www.clearcarbonconsulting.com), Arlington, Va. “Carbon really does equal money.”

The typical starting point for carbon reduction initiatives is to measure existing carbon use, creating a benchmark footprint. An energy audit and development of a greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory is the first step.

“If you want to see where you’re going, you have to know where you’re starting from,” says Kyle Smith, managing director of Carbon and Energy Management Services with Pace Global Energy Services (www.paceglobal.com), Fairfax, Va.

Dean Foods’ WhiteWave division buys renewable energy credits from Bonneville Environmental Foundation. This is one of the non-profit organization’s wind farms, in Roosevelt, Wash.

The objective in establishing a GHG inventory, Smith adds, is “to know where the carbon is being produced in your company and identify the opportunities to reduce your carbon footprint.”

Easier said than done. It’s a complicated process of record-keeping, calculation and analysis but, as often is the case, there’s software to handle the hard work. Pace offers Ecolink, a software tool and service package. Christian Whitaker, Pace’s director of carbon management services, explains how it works:

  1. “We start with plant utility data – past usage of electricity, natural gas, transportation fuels even fuel oil and coal. Usually this is gotten from a plant’s utility provider.
  2. “First we look for errors – in the utility company’s readings, calculations, billings.
  3. “We put the usage data into the Ecolink system and apply emissions calculation methodology. Every utility is required [by the Clean Air Act] to calculate its carbon footprint. We calculate the utility’s emissions per kilowatt hour and multiply that by the [food] plant’s usage, factor in other methodologies unique to your plant and come up with your greenhouse gas inventory.”

Whitaker says Ecolink then can calculate both the energy savings and the reduced carbon emissions of different energy-improvement actions. “We can show not only how energy conservation will save you dollars, but how it can be applied toward corporate sustainability goals.”

Carbon throughout the plant

Admittedly, key areas for carbon reduction extend far beyond the food plant – at least to the fleet and, for some food companies, backward to the farm or ranch. But the plant is the area within the control of most food processors.

Within the plant, key contributors to energy/carbon use include processing equipment, such as ovens, dehydrators, retorts and pasteurizers; coolers and freezers; compressed air systems; air-handling systems for clean rooms; and lighting.

Tactics to reduce energy use in these areas include some straightforward solutions, such as retrofitting lighting fixtures with on/off sensors and energy-efficient bulbs or reconfiguring delivery routes to save fuel.

Other solutions are more complex and require a capital investment. The processor may need to retrofit or replace certain pieces of equipment to improve energy efficiency. An example would be replacing motors with new ones that are more energy efficient and sized properly to the equipment they power. Further, HVAC optimization and control systems can help reduce energy demand and thus the carbon footprint.

This past Earth Day (April 22) PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division inaugurated solar concentrator fields at its Modesto, Calif., manufacturing facility. The 192 solar collectors, comprising 54,000 sq. ft. of concave mirrors, will absorb sunlight and generate steam that helps heat the cooking oil used in the SunChips manufacturing process.

It’s important to recognize that carbon sources in the plant extend beyond electricity, natural gas and other types of energy. For food processors, the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigeration equipment are a key carbon source. HFCs are on the list of Kyoto Protocol GHGs.

Although the volume of HFCs used in industry is relatively low, their environmental impact is significant because the global warming potential (GWP) of these gases is thousands of times greater than the GWP of carbon dioxide.

Beyond the food processing plant, “transportation has a huge impact on carbon emissions,” says John Hoekstra, manager of energy sustainability at Summit Energy Services (www.summitenergy.com), Louisville, Ky.

“For transportation, we’re looking at everything from the fuel efficiency to the tire inflation — all the little things that you can do,” says Ellen Feeney, vice president of responsible livelihood at WhiteWave Foods (www.whitewave.com), Broomfield, Colo. “We’re tracking the miles, trying to make each one of the loads more efficient.”

A wholly owned subsidiary of leading milk processor Dean Foods Co., WhiteWave makes and markets brands such as Silk soymilk and Horizon Organic dairy products.

Feeney adds that WhiteWave’s transportation team was already doing a great deal to make the fleet as efficient as possible when the company conducted its first corporate GHG-emissions audit in 2006. But data from the audit gave that team — and colleagues in the plant and on WhiteWave’s farms — an extra layer of data and deeper insight into how the company was using energy and other resources and how it could reduce GHG emissions.

Dean Foods’ Horizon Organic farm in Maryland has solar energy panels on its roof.

Included in WhiteWave’s audit were all sources of GHGs, including methane and nitrous oxide emissions caused by enteric fermentation and animal waste. On WhiteWave’s behalf, Clear Carbon Consulting created a GHG database to store all corporate electricity, fuel, refrigeration, fleet and waste data.

WhiteWave conducted another audit in 2007 and found it useful to compare the results year over year. “The process is really a reiterative one in that you do the baseline audit and start charting your course. When you do the second year, any discrepancies in the numbers jump out at you and you turn into an investigative reporter,” Feeney says.

WhiteWave’s corporate mission includes a strong commitment to social and environmental responsibility; the company has been buying renewable energy credits since 2003. As part of that culture, the company encourages sustainability efforts even at the level of individual employees.

“It’s not just our greenhouse gas audit. There are things we’ve done culturally to save energy,” Feeney says. Through the corporate Values in Action program, “we give points to employees who take the stairs instead of the elevator. And we give points for making a commitment to turn off the lights. It’s not just with the big stuff like the plants.”

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