The US consumer wants food to be fresh, local and organic. But that means larger grocery bills in an economy where most people need them to be smaller.
As the New York Times tells it, 20-somethings, just out of college, feel the squeeze the most. They are more intent on Whole Foods-style eating than their predecessors, but less able to afford it. (See “The Unaffordable Luxury of Food” by Ginia Bellafante.)
Consumers, young and old, also increasingly want products made with green energy. Together, these trends – energy awareness, buyer discrimination, and squeezed budgets – make the case for seeking greater energy efficiency in the food industry.
Modern food production requires a lot of energy. Food-related energy use jumped significantly—80 percent —from 1997 to 2002 as new technologies came into play. Now the food industry uses a whopping 16 percent of the US energy budget to grow, transport, store and otherwise prepare what we find on our table, according to a US Department of Agriculture report.
Linking energy & organic
In a recent report of its own, Principal Solar illustrates ways the food industry is trying to save energy.
“Examining the food industry, one of the biggest questions presented to suppliers is how to balance the quality that consumers ask for and the affordability that they need,” said Principal Solar’s white paper, Energy Efficiency & Sustainability in Organic Food Supply. “While the solution to these issues is multi-faceted, a focus on sustainable farming and energy efficiency presents itself as a primary step.”
Restaurant chains, such as Arby’s, Chipotle, McDonalds, Subway, and Starbucks are paving the way by designing buildings to meet standards of the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the white paper said.
And Michigan State University now has the first LEED certified agricultural facility, its W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, according to the white paper. The MSU dairy farm links two compatible environmental efforts: organic farming and energy efficiency. At the same time, the facility offers a way to reduce food growing costs. Upfront LEED costs are offset by long-term reductions in energy bills – a 38 percent cut for the MSU project through better temperature control, lighting and other improvements.
Elsewhere, various companies report other ways they are reducing energy in the food industry.
Ecova has carved out a niche in the food industry with its program that tracks energy use and identifies and puts in place efficiency measures.
Third largest cost
“Identifying and reducing utility costs is an important part of the process when looking to decrease operational expenses, as utility bills are the third largest budget item for many companies,” said Seth Nesbitt, Ecova’s senior vice president and general manager for marketing & technology.
The energy company numbers among its clients Pacific Northwest chain Shari’s, which saved more than $700,000 in utility costs after Ecova audited the energy use at 100 Shari’s locations. Ecova saved CKE Restaurants $358,000 between January 2010 and June 2012 through energy efficiency efforts, and achieved 4.3 percent cut in energy use over one year for chain California Pizza.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of grocery stores are using combined heat and power, a highly efficient technology because it uses one fuel to produce two forms of energy, heat and power. UTC Power has installed CHP fuel cells in Whole Foods stores in California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Stonyfield Farm has undertaken a number of efficiency and green building initiatives at its facilities and associated farms. The New Hampshire yogurt maker has achieved a 40 percent reduction in its energy use at its office and manufacturing building.
F. X. Matt Brewing, maker of Saranac Beers expects to save $350,000 annually through a new system that uses brewing wastewater to generate electricity through anaerobic digestion. The company received $1.75 million from National Grid and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to help fund the $5 million project.
Consumer demand drives trends in the food industry. More stores offer organic produce because more people seek it out. The same could become true for energy efficiency. If consumers begin asking about energy saving efforts behind a product, food producers are more likely to undertake them. In doing so, they’ll gain green bragging rights and consumers might see some price relief as well. Maybe you can have your organic cake and eat it too?
Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.