KANSAS CITY, MO -- There may be different dynamics at work, but the move towards greater energy efficiency is propelling changes in dairy processing plants and dairy-run facilities. Those changes can include traditional upgrades like better ventilation and insulation or significant projects such as systems that harness energy from product waste.

Sustainability initiatives as part of dairy processors’ overarching corporate responsibility programs are an important and growing factor impacting the implementation of different technologies and practices to optimize energy use.

With the introduction of the US Dairy Stewardship Commitment that set a goal to be a carbon-neutral industry by 2050, many participating dairy processors are embracing energy efficiency as one way to reduce their respective environmental footprints. Developed by the Innovation Center for US Dairy, the Stewardship Commitment includes metrics for energy usage, energy intensity and energy mix.

The move toward more sustainable practices has also been encouraged by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), which has provided its members with information and tools to apply for ENERGY STAR certification from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Greenhouse gases and energy efficiency tend to go hand in hand, part of the overall drive towards sustainability,” said Danielle Quist, vice president, regulatory affairs and counsel for the Washington, DC-headquartered IDFA.

As Quist notes, energy efficiency is often at the core of an organization’s programs.

“Determining how to improve energy efficiency is one of the first things a company usually does in its sustainability journey,” she said.

With and beyond these industry-guided motivations, dairy processors have been updating and retrofitting their processing facilities to use less energy in many forms.

“Part of our sustainability strategy is to incorporate energy efficiency measures wherever possible in our business facilities,” said Nicole Rakobitsch, director of sustainability at the independent farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley, based in La Farge, Wis. “By doing this, less fossil fuel energy is consumed, and smaller renewable energy systems are needed to replace these fossil fuels.”

At Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) in Tillamook County, Ore., many aspects of energy efficiency are tied to the company’s overall and longstanding commitment to stewardship.

“When TCCA was created in 1909, our farmer-owners built everything with a long-term outlook — to ensure that farms and communities are here for generations to come, and it’s still true today,” said Paul Snyder, executive vice president, stewardship. “In recent years, we’ve doubled down on our commitment to stewardship and accelerated the work in all aspects of our business.”

To Snyder’s’ point, dairy companies that have built brands and businesses around organic, natural or otherwise better-for-you or better-for-the-planet attributes should, and typically do, walk the walk when it comes to energy use in their operations.

“Because Tillamook County Creamery Association depends on natural resources to deliver wholesome, quality products, we recognize our responsibility to protect those resources,” Snyder said “At TCCA, we are always looking for ways to improve our efficiency and waste; and work hard to protect our resources beyond the farm.”

Stonyfield Farm was an early starter in energy efficiency. As a brand with an identity centered on organic farming and production, the Londonderry, NH-based company was the first manufacturer in the United States to offset all of its carbon dioxide emissions from its facility’s energy use.

“More recently, in 2019, we set a verified science-based target to reduce overall carbon systems 30% by 2030, across the operations and supply chain,” said Lisa Drake, director of sustainability innovations. “It really sets the stage for continuing this work on energy efficiency in many ways.”

In recent years, there has been notable progress in the dairy industry in making the best use of energy sources as part of their sustainability programs.

“The food industry is moving a little faster now,” Drake said. “My feeling is that food companies can’t ignore the realities of climate change.”

Energy Savings, Expense Savings

In addition to making changes for the sake of the environment on a local and global scale, processors also pursue energy-saving or energy-optimizing features to help their bottom line.

“We have invested over $3 million over the last 10 years in energy efficiency, which has saved us at least a million a year,” Drake said.

At Organic Valley, Rakobitsch agrees that the benefits are multi-faceted. “Energy efficiency measures typically have a short pay-back period. When energy efficiency measures are implemented, a business will consume less energy and therefore be saving money.

“I would say the industry, in general, is continually looking for ways to improve and maximize efficiencies,” Rakobitsch said.

Energy Synergies

Certainly there are many opportunities for the best use of energy in a dairy processing environment, given the fact that energy is used (often extensively) from the receipt of raw material to the shipping of packaged goods. Focal areas can include heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and equipment, with a range of energy-saving possibilities ranging from motors with variable speed drives to solar energy for hot water production to highly-efficient refrigeration systems.

The nature of dairy processing lends itself to unique aspects of energy use ― and challenges. Many sites have different temperature zones within a relatively small area. Strict sanitation requirements impact both energy consumption and water temperature and usage. Processing lines are often high moisture environments.

By reviewing energy use and needs ― independently or through an audit ― a manufacturer can identify areas that would benefit from better energy management. Even in facilities that produce many different types of dairy products, improvements can be made that positively impact every line.

Some approaches are gaining steam in energy efficiency. For example, several processors are using renewable energy in their facilities. TCCA is among those processors.

“We have joined the local People’s Utility District’s (PUD) Green Power Program and pay a premium to support this and other projects,” Snyder said. “Through these efforts and involvement with PUD, 100% of our electricity use at The Creamery visitor’s center is sourced from renewable energy.”

Likewise, Organic Valley’s offices and production facilities are run by 100% renewable power.

“This is through a combination of solar electric systems mounted on our buildings, a community wind farm, and three solar farms that we sponsor,” Rakobitsch said. “In fact, our office building in Cashton has achieved LEED Gold certification, and it consumes 55 percent less energy than a typical office building of its size.”

Another example of innovations in this area comes from Leprino Foods, which received the 2020 Outstanding Dairy Processing & Manufacturing Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for US Dairy for its Greeley, Colo. facility. That facility uses a dual combined heat and power system that generates electricity from a pair of natural gas turbines, providing 12 megawatts of onsite electricity generation. In addition, that plant has a wastewater solids digester and biogas cogeneration engine that provides 25% of the electricity to the treatment plant.

Worldwide, dairy operations are investing in the latest energy efficiency technologies. In India, an ultra-high temperature production line is currently being installed at the leading dairy company, Creamy Foods, Ltd.  GEA India is working with the company to create indirect heating and cooling through special tubular heat exchangers with a high heat recovery of about 88% over the entire production run.

In addition to renewable energy and more efficient (and often LED) lighting, refrigeration and machinery, dairy processors are converting energy in different ways.  

“At our Boardman production facility, a heat recovery system helps significantly reduce our energy consumption,” Snyder said. “We also use steam directly from the Portland General Electric Coyote Springs electrical generating station, decreasing the energy required for process heating at our facility.”

Stonyfield Organic continues to pioneer ways to optimize energy at its locations. The company uses an anaerobic pre-treatment system that generates energy from yogurt processing waste. This uses 40% less energy than conventional dairy treatment systems. According to Drake, Stonyfield is focused on opportunities for waste-heat recovery.

Robbie Lock, sustainability manager at HP Hood, LLC, Lynnfield, Mass. said that efficiencies all around enable companies to run better. In 2019, HP Hood’s plant in Agawam, Mass. received the first-ever ENERGY STAR certification given to a fluid dairy processing plant by the EPA.

“Hood is investing in sustainability and prioritizing energy efficiency to help drive long-term business innovation and success,” he said. “All of our key stakeholders, from company leadership and employees, to customers and consumers, understand the value of integrating sustainability alongside product quality and value.”

This story is featured in the June 2021 issue of Dairy Processing.