With 2013 right around the corner, it’s the perfect time for bakeries and snack producers to make a New Year’s resolution to develop a concrete plan to outline sustainability initiatives that seize the low-hanging fruit — if they haven’t done so already — and lower long-term operating costs.

In some cases, replacing existing lighting with energy-efficient fluorescent fixtures should be a no-brainer, especially when the return on investment (ROI) is less than two years, according Scott Houtz, president of Air Management Technologies, Lewisburg, PA. In addition to cost savings, he noted, new lighting systems can be designed to eliminate poorly or overly lit areas to provide additional operation, sanitation and product quality benefits.

To minimize mold, provide food safety and improve working conditions, many operations rely on positive atmospheric pressure in their facilities. However, Mr. Houtz said, industrial ventilation systems can be “energy hogs,” especially if they’re not properly designed. “Too many times, systems have been pieced together over the years with an exhaust fan here and a fan there without looking at the big picture — creating an environment that, many times, doesn’t meet objectives and wastes energy,” he explained.

Perhaps the best way to get the process rolling is to conduct an energy audit that can help plants identify myriad ways to save money, said Darryl Wernimont, director of marketing, POWER Engineers, Hailey, ID.

Such audits map existing energy distribution and help determine how to use it more efficiently. The process routinely combines the power of PLCs, custom software and wireless instrumentation to create a baseline for monitoring energy use. That baseline, Mr. Wernimont noted, allows companies to isolate specific opportunities for controlling costs. “With this knowledge in hand, a facility can take actions to achieve measurable sustainability,” he said.

Become a Star player

Initially, the most difficult challenge in launching a sustainability program may involve understanding that the actual payback for many initiatives is ongoing, as processes evolve and employee behavior becomes ingrained in a company’s culture.

“The gains through improved sustainability can be enormous, and many practices are easier to implement than most imagine,” said Stacey Sharpless, president of the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association (BCMA). “Often companies can save a great deal of money on their energy bill by making some basic changes to their maintenance routines. Investing in energy-efficient technologies and products can reap huge savings. Additionally, employees trained in proper procedures and consistent practices will greatly improve efficiency and minimize waste and downtime due to human error.”

In recent years, BCMA and the American Bakers Association (ABA) encouraged their members to participate in the Energy Star Challenge for Industry in conjunction with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Among its many goals, the voluntary program strives to help facilities reduce their energy intensity by 10% over five years.

Working with EPA, BCMA developed a Cookie and Cracker Energy Performance Indicator that provides a method for gauging energy performance throughout an operation and compares how a plant ranks among similar-sized facilities in the industry.

“Once a manufacturer has a better handle on their usage, a plan to address the area in most need of improvement can be developed,” Ms. Sharpless said.

ABA hopes to complete the Energy Star Guide for the Baking Industry by the end of this year, according to Rasma Zvaners, ABA policy director. “We are learning that a well-run energy program can reduce energy costs by 3 to 10% annually,” she said. “The energy guide will be a recipe of ideas for bakers who want to begin implementing an energy-efficiency program or perhaps improve one that is already in place.”

These programs typically require a step-by-step approach to achieving incremental savings that can add up over time, especially in existing facilities. “While it may be easier to implement more efficient features when designing a new bakery, there are smaller steps that can lead in the right direction,” Ms. Zvaners noted. “For example, when starting from scratch, consider beginning by monitoring your energy use or tracking fuel consumption.”

Replacing insulation and ensuring motors are properly sized represent examples of smaller, practical solutions for nearly all operations, she added.

Another easy way to eliminate wasting fuel in a direct gas-fired oven is to keep the burners and combustion components clean and the air/fuel ratio properly tuned, noted Jim Pezzuto, president of ERB CORE, a division of the Ensign Group, Pelham, NY.

“Burners that are partially lit, caused by dirt clogging the burner ribbons or ports, pump unburned fuel into the oven and out the stack,” he explained. “Clogged combustion air filters and mixer orifices increase the energy required to pump the proper amount of primary air to maintain oven temperature and can decrease the efficiency of the air/gas mixer. Maintaining the proper air/gas ratio to each burner is as easy as tweaking the ratio screw located in the gas line at each mixer. Proper adjustment often results in lower fuel consumption to maintain oven temperature and in lower carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the stack. This requires very little investment, and the returns can be a 5 to 8 % decrease in oven energy usage.”

Finding hidden costs

Likewise, focusing on fundamentals such as investing in education can provide a significant payback. “A lack of cohesive, consistent training within a plant may result in a great deal of waste and will set back any sustainability initiatives put in place,” Ms. Sharpless said.

Initiating such programs isn’t always easy in today’s environment. “Tight staffing makes training difficult, and often companies cut training budgets to help short term in difficult economic times,” she explained. “However, in the long term, this results in inconsistent or improper procedures being performed and industry knowledge loss that is difficult to replace. These factors combined end up being very costly for any company.”

Overcoming the learning curve can open employees’ minds to uncovering new ways to reduce waste and improve interdepartmental cooperation, Mr. Wernimont noted. “Sustainable initiatives need to be viewed as an integrated program that brings into play all of the key engineering and operation disciplines in conjunction with major vendors, suppliers and consultants,” he said. “The more experienced the team, the more cost-effective the program.”

Many bakers and snack manufacturers must broaden their approach to eliminating waste. “You need to look at what has changed in the past 10 years, how market and consumer expectations have changed and ask yourself, ‘If the next 10 years see as much activity as the past 10 years, can I afford not to embrace some level of environmental stewardship?’ ” Mr. Wernimont asked.

Sustainability efforts tend to require a different approach to managing the bottom line. Take a $200,000 heat recovery project with an ROI of four years. “Some people wouldn’t consider this to be a good return, although if you consider the decision not to pursue results in lost revenues of more than $1 million over a 20-year period, considering a 3% annual utility rate increase, then it can paint a different picture,” Mr. Houtz said. “Companies operating at a 10% profit margin would need to generate $10 million in sales just to break even — not to mention that a lack of action resulted in more than 6,000 tons of greenhouse gas being discharged.”

In the end, Ms. Sharpless said, sustainability always comes down to costs and savings, and it eventually becomes as natural as closing a window on a cold day. “If a manufacturer can break down and measure its energy usage, make improvements and then see their monthly energy bill reduced, the value is self evident,” she said. “Furthermore, once proper and comprehensive training is in place, a manufacturer should be properly and efficiently producing product, which, of course, is the goal of all manufacturers.”