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In Eco-Friendly Factory, Low-Guilt Potato Chips

By Andrew Martin (The New York Times) - November 15, 2007

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — At Frito-Lay’s factory here, more than 500,000 pounds of potatoes arrive every day from New Mexico to be washed, sliced, fried, seasoned and portioned into bags of Lay’s and Ruffles chips. The process devours enormous amounts of energy, and creates vast amounts of wastewater, starch and potato peelings.

Now, Frito-Lay is embarking on an ambitious plan to change the way this factory operates, and in the process, create a new type of snack: the environmentally benign chip.

Its goal is to take the Casa Grande plant off the power grid, or nearly so, and run it almost entirely on renewable fuels and recycled water. Net zero, as the concept is called, has the backing of the highest levels of corporate executives at PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay.

There are benefits besides the potential energy savings. Like many other large corporations, PepsiCo is striving to establish its green credentials as consumers become more focused on climate change. There are marketing opportunities, too. The company, for example, intends to advertise that its popular SunChips snacks are made using solar energy.

“We don’t know what the complete payoff for net zero is going to be,” said Indra K. Nooyi, PepsiCo’s chairman and chief executive. “If this works even to 50 or 60 percent of its potential, that is fantastic, and it’s so much better than what we already have.”

From coast to coast, more companies are thinking about how much fossil fuel they use and ways to conserve energy. Venture capital money is also pouring into fledgling green technology.

Only a few years ago, Andy Walker, a government engineer, pleaded with companies to tackle the problems but got blank stares. “Now, my phone is ringing off the hook,” said Mr. Walker, who works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Department of Energy in Colorado.

But advocacy groups contend that for all the interest in saving energy, many companies also exaggerate small improvements for marketing purposes.

“Now I think there’s a transition, and it’s only begun and the grandstanding is ahead of the action,” said Joel Swisher, director of research at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit energy research organization.

He said that some companies were trumpeting relatively modest changes. “Not that it’s a bad thing,” he added. “It is moving in the right direction.”

Some companies have pursued much more ambitious changes. Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America said it had managed to reduce energy consumption for every vehicle manufactured by more than 24 percent since 2002. Texas Instruments built a green semiconductor plant in Texas in 2006 that the company expects will save $4 million a year in energy and water costs.

PepsiCo, meanwhile, has become the nation’s biggest buyer of renewable energy credits, a financial instrument that stimulates the development of renewable energy sources, and its subsidiaries are retrofitting plants and distribution centers to reduce energy.

The net zero concept, however, is the company’s most ambitious environmental venture to date. Reaching its goal of taking it almost completely off the power grid will not be easy.

Over the next several years, Frito-Lay plans to install high-tech filters that would recycle most of the water used to rinse and wash potatoes, as well as the corn used to make Doritos and other snacks, and then burn the leftover sludge to create methane gas to run the plant’s boiler.

The company will also build at least 50 acres of solar concentrators behind the plant to generate solar power. A biomass generator, which will probably burn agricultural waste, is also planned to provide additional renewable fuel.

The retrofit of the Casa Grande factory, scheduled to be completed by 2010, would reduce electricity and water consumption by 90 percent and its natural gas use by 80 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 50 percent to 75 percent, the company said.

Frito-Lay hopes the project will help the company save money on energy costs, particularly as oil prices approach $100 a barrel. What works in Casa Grande, one of 37 plants it operates in the United States and Canada, would then be replicated at other sites where possible.

The Casa Grande plant was built in 1984 and is bigger than two football fields. With its peelers and ovens and fryers, the plant burns enough natural gas in a year to heat 13,000 homes for the winter, and it makes 212 million bags of snack chips a year.

Under a directive from Frito-Lay to cut utility costs, the managers at the Casa Grande plant have already installed skylights in conference rooms, offices and a finished goods warehouse to reduce the need for artificial light. They have also bought more fuel-efficient ovens and have begun recapturing heat from oven stacks.

Vacuum hoses were installed to pull moisture from potato slices, both to recapture the water and to reduce the amount of heat needed to cook the potato chips.

Since 1999, Frito-Lay companywide has reduced its water use by 38 percent, natural gas by 27 percent and electricity by 21 percent, cutting $55 million a year in utility costs.

But finding new ways to save energy and water is getting harder each year. So Frito-Lay officials started exploring more ambitious — and expensive — methods.

At a strategy meeting last year with Mrs. Nooyi, Frito-Lay managers proposed creating a plant with a combination of technologies that would cut water and energy use as much as possible.

“We said, ‘This might not make a hell of a lot of sense initially, but long term this is where we need to go,’” said David Haft, Frito-Lay’s group vice president for sustainability and productivity.

The Casa Grande plant was selected because it was a midsize operation that would cost less to retrofit than a larger factory. The plant’s locale also offered an attractive storyline for consumers: recycling water in the middle of the desert and producing snack chips from solar concentrators.

The project will start next year with the installation of a membrane bio-reactor, which looks like a railroad car with long strands of fettuccine hanging from the ceiling. In fact, the strands are filters that will clean the water used to process potato chips and corn products.

The waste produced by the filtering process will then be fed to a new anaerobic digester, which will produce methane gas to run the plant’s boiler.

The second stage of the process will be the installation of at least 50 acres of solar concentrators behind the plant. Similar concentrators are now being installed at a plant in Modesto, Calif. The concentrators are parabolic mirrors about three feet off the ground that move with the sun and focus energy on a tube filled with water, much as a magnifying glass focuses the sun’s rays.

The water is heated to about 500 degrees and is run through a maze of pipes back to the plant, where it will power a steam generator.

The last portion of the net zero plant would be a biomass generator that provides additional fuel to run the plant’s boiler. Company officials have not yet determined what type of material will be used as fuel.

Frito-Lay would not provide a cost estimate for the project at Casa Grande. The company’s projections show that installing the net zero technology will cost slightly more over the next 25 years than if they continued with the current programs. However, the estimates are fairly conservative and do not factor in oil at $100 a barrel.

Frito-Lay officials maintain that trying net zero provides a hedge, particularly if the most pessimistic predictions about climate change and the availability of water and petroleum hold true.

“If the price of these resources continues to rise, we will be very happy we made these investments,” said Rich Beck, senior vice president for operations.