With automation and other technologies replacing activities that used to be done by hand, energy costs are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the total cost of food production. In addition, more retailers and consumers want the foods they buy to be produced in an environmentally friendly manner.

It all adds up to strong demand for energy-efficient buildings.

“This is a segment that we can readily affect by utilizing more energy-efficient designs and equipment,” says Mike Pierce, president of Cleveland-based design-build firm The Austin Co. “Manufacturers of components used in the construction and fit-out of food plants are being pushed to innovate and build their items for energy efficiency, making choices for the end user much easier.”

The efficiency challenges faced by commissaries, central kitchens and other facilities that turn out a wide variety of products, however, can be daunting, Pierce says. “A commissary needs a high degree of flexibility to prepare their products.  Managing that in a flexible but food-safe environment is challenging enough, but it takes more energy to maintain sanitary conditions and avoid allergen contamination than in a dedicated food plant.” By contrast, he says, processors that produce a limited number of products can achieve consistency and reliability much more easily.   

Some of the main components of an energy-efficient building, Pierce says, include:

  • an efficient and properly designed building envelope tailored to its environment;
  • LED lighting with motion sensors;
  • efficient air compressors and boilers;
  • properly designed ammonia refrigeration systems;
  • the economizing of process-generated heat; and
  • the use of solar panels.


A relatively easy step producers can take towards energy efficiency, Pierce says, is to recover waste heat from ovens, boilers and air compressors. “Waste heat is basically free, and when you can repurpose it, you immediately reduce utility inputs from the providers,” he says. “And when done right, it can reduce the heat in the building, which then takes the load off the HVAC system.”

Natural lighting is a good fit in some situations, Pierce says, but food producers have to be careful about using it in humid process operations — particularly in winter, due to condensation-related problems. In general, he says, the less water used, the more efficient the facility.  High-efficiency boilers with economizers, direct-contact water heaters and steam generators (in lieu of boilers) are among the ways of achieving that end.

With its food industry clients, the Austin Co. is careful about choosing the right building volume to minimize the amount of air that needs to be conditioned and circulated. “One should not underestimate the impact of site selection for energy efficiency,” Pierce says. “The right site can impact energy efficiency and overall operational efficiency ensuring proper drainage, building orientation, prevailing winds, etc.”


Baking industry “stars”

In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program was approached by the American Bakers Association. The ABA wanted help encouraging its members to promote energy efficiency in their plants.

Up until that time, the baking industry in general hadn’t been focused on energy efficiency in any systematic manner. Change occurred on a more piecemeal basis. If a company’s local utility offered a rebate for efficiency, for instance, the company might be encouraged to up its game just enough to get the rebate. But most large bakeries didn’t have formalized efficiency programs.

Energy Star, a voluntary program that helps businesses and individuals save money and protect the climate through efficiency, provides certification and benchmarks to allow companies to measure themselves against their competitors, which not only can save money but also provide a valuable marketing tool for sustainability-minded customers. Another spur for bakers was the example set by fast-food giant McDonald’s, which made a big push to improve efficiency in the plants that supplied its buns and other baked products.

Energy Star’s benchmarking tool, or EPI, for commercial bread and roll producers scores bakeries on a scale of 1 to 100. Plants that score a 75 or higher are considered the most energy efficient and are eligible for Energy Star certification. The EPA also recognizes bakeries that take and achieve the Energy Star Challenge for Industry, whose goal is 10% energy intensity reduction within five years.

As of 2017, according to Energy Star, 165 companies had taken the challenge — the most among all food industry sub-categories tracked by the agency. So far, 19 of those have achieved the 10% goal, and most have far exceeded it. The average reduction is more than 19%, and the average length of time it took to do it less than two years. Taken together, those 19 companies have saved about $2.2 million in energy savings, according to the EPA.

Some corners of the baking industry have more room for growth than others when it comes to energy efficiency. Many small bakeries, for instance, haven’t been as focused on energy efficiencies as commercial plants, according to experts. But opportunities exist for smaller operators to make upgrades with relatively little expense. Energy Star’s 31-page Energy Treasure Hunt Guide guidebook was created to take the punitive edge off making upgrades by engaging employees in a two- or three- day “hunt” to identify low-cost energy savings opportunities from behavioral, operational and maintenance actions.

Even for larger facilities, energy efficiency doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Creating a schedule detailing when certain machines can be turned off if they’re not in use can save tens of thousands of dollars annually, according to Energy Star. Compressed air management is another fix that doesn’t have to break the bank. In addition, plant managers can make a cheap investment in a smart phone thermal imaging attachment, such as those made by Flir,  that identifies exactly where their facilities are losing heat. Adding insulation to ovens is another way to save energy and cut costs, according to Energy Star.


Costs and (big) benefits

Many of these and similar improvements, experts say, can pay for themselves in as little as six months. Expenses can rise quickly, however, according to the EPA, when companies seek to upgrade their ovens and lines, and in particular if their plants have freezers.

Most food plants use a lot of energy, adds the Austin Co.’s Pierce. They require large refrigeration plants to cool the facilities, and they’re major users of hot water because of the need to clean to a bacteriological level on a daily basis. Many food production facilities also require refrigerated and/or frozen areas in production and storage.  That provides a unique challenge to food manufacturers to come up with the proper facility design, temperature and humidity control, air balance, personnel egress and transition areas to maximize energy efficiency and minimize energy loss. By contrast, non-food facilities often have the advantage of producing in either ambient or minimal-condition areas.

One thing is certain, though, Pierce says: the benefits of making food production facilities more energy-efficient have only increased with time. He compares efficiency to the use of robotics for palletizing and other tasks. What used to be prohibitively expensive is now a wise investment. 

“The same goes for more energy-efficient alternatives,” he says. “Once the cost of implementation reaches a good payback point, the manufacturers will move in that direction.  We are all looking for alternatives to produce more efficiently, provide a better value to our customers and move dollars to the bottom line.” And beyond the bottom line, he says, the marketing benefits and good will generated pay dividends in ways less easy to measure but no less real.

A key driver moving food processors — and especially bakeries — towards energy-efficient designs and retrofits, Pierce says, is the simple fact that margins in these categories are tight and the space is highly competitive. “These companies want to make premium products for their consumers which require more expensive ingredients,” he says. “To keep the pricing stable to the end user and remain relevant and competitive, they have to cut costs elsewhere. Building utility and operation costs are a great place to start.”


Energy efficient bakeries

  • Bimbo Bakeries USA (14 plants certified)
  • Flowers Foods Inc. (10)
  • Bama Cos. (2)
  • Klosterman Baking Co. (1)
  • Northeast Foods Inc. (1)