In the plant: The green balancing act

Hormel Foods shows the way to meet environmental and economic goals.
By Thomas Raymond and Chad Sayles, Hormel Foods March 15, 2012

Courtesy: Hormel FoodsIn order to create an efficient and sustainable operation, an organization must recruit and retain employees with a spirit of innovation and be willing to provide an atmosphere where continuous improvement is valued. By implementing this approach, an organization can create a foundation that will facilitate the development of best practices in manufacturing while motivating employees to find the latest sustainable solutions and technologies.

Cultivating a culture where employees think about sustainable solutions in everyday decisions is a long-term process, but it is a necessary component for building a successful, long-term operation. At Hormel Foods, we live out our commitment to minimize our impact on the environment by empowering our employees through ongoing training, communication, recognition, and senior leadership support.

Doing so provides our team of subject-matter experts with the tools necessary to evaluate the best way to incorporate sustainable solutions into each manufacturing project. As a result, we have created industry-leading operations that minimize water use, energy consumption, air emissions, and solid waste generation.

As a general approach, we consider the following factors when evaluating potential projects:

  1. What is the desired operational outcome?
  2. What areas will be impacted by the proposed change?
  3. What are the stakeholder priorities?

A thorough, documented review of these factors will lead to the proper balance of environmental, economic, and social interests.

Best practices

When considering the factors listed previously, it is important to remember that each manufacturing location and each product line is uniquely designed. Therefore, efforts must be tailored to an individual operation.

To establish a foundation for sustainability, the project team should establish standard operating procedures and communicate clear expectations for the ongoing management of the process being installed or modified. Doing so will help further develop a culture of sustainability and will help support reduced waste and associated operational costs.

Key concepts to consider during the planning and implementation phases of a sustainability initiative include:

  • All sustainability initiatives begin and end with measurement. It is important to identify and quantify the project goals at the onset of the project, and then to periodically review key metrics to assure that the project objectives continue to be met. Ultimately, you cannot manage what you do not measure. Proper measurement ensures that each project can be effectively managed.
  • Proper training and knowledge support will guarantee the longevity of sustainability initiatives. It does not matter how advanced the engineering approach may be if administrative controls are not in place and fully implemented.
  • Maximizing the lifetime value of physical assets (i.e., buildings and equipment) results from identifying maintenance and operational requirements followed by implementing standardized procedures. Each of our plants at Hormel Foods has established a comprehensive physical asset management program that incorporates a blend of inspection, condition monitoring, and preventive maintenance strategies. The appropriate maintenance strategy is determined by considering the criticality of each asset based on a combination of food safety, employee safety, environmental impact, and production cost criteria. All inspection, conditioning monitoring, and preventive maintenance tasks are maintained within an enterprise asset management System. By establishing a maintenance strategy for each asset, we are able to obtain its greatest lifetime value through a balance of maximum production capacity with minimum operational expenses.
  • Each project must be carefully reviewed for impacts to related systems. For example, water reduction initiatives often have the added benefit of reducing energy use, but can also have a negative impact on wastewater treatment operations. Evaluating all potential savings and costs will improve an organization’s ability to properly prioritize initiatives and will result in optimal short- and long-term financial return.

Courtesy: Hormel FoodsAs manufacturers continue to develop processes and technologies designed to advance sustainability initiatives, we encourage our peers to evaluate sustainability projects based on more than short-term results. To achieve truly sustainable results, a project team must carefully evaluate the short- and long-term project impacts.


Prior to finalizing an approach to a new sustainability initiative, the project team must determine the proper balance between environmental, economic, and social concerns. It is important to evaluate the interests of each stakeholder group before implementing a project.

For example, water is a worldwide stressor and an important interest to social and environmental stakeholders. Yet, at many locations the comparatively low cost of water makes justifying water initiatives difficult. Looking at all potential impacts, both short- and long-term, can help provide the proper business perspective and will result in the best balance of stakeholder interests. The true cost of water is not just a number on a water bill.

Although challenging at times, each gallon must be evaluated for costs associated with additional energy inputs, water treatment, and the processing of wastewater. Additionally, water use must also be evaluated with a view of long-term operational and social costs. A comprehensive view helps determine the full level of efficiency that can be created through a project. At times, an organization must realize that the cost of action may indeed be considerably less than the cost of inaction.

Finally, behavioral change is a large and looming factor in the success of any sustainability initiative. It is important to think about sustainability projects in two ways: engineering control and administrative control. A high level of organizational and individual stakeholder buy-in is necessary to assure that the maximum project savings are achieved over time. Standard operating procedures, along with management support, training, and clearly stated expectations are important drivers of success.

Water and heat recovery projects

Capturing water for reuse and recovering heat that is rejected or released from equipment throughout a manufacturing facility reduces water use, wastewater discharge, energy use, and air emissions.

At Hormel Foods, we design new processes and facilities to recover water and heat energy from the first day of operation and then continuously look for opportunities to improve existing processes. Often water recovery and heat recovery are part of a single project because water is used as the medium to transfer the heat energy.

Decades ago, we started installing heat exchangers to recover heat energy from refrigeration systems, air compressors, boiler systems, and many other energy-intensive processes. In many of these cases, closed-loop water systems were installed to transfer the heat energy. Over the years, water storage tanks were installed as means to store the heat energy until it was needed.

In recent years, our engineering teams have applied new ideas and technology to capture some of the water and energy that previously escaped. Examples of these projects include condensing stack economizers and improved closed-loop cooling systems.

Courtesy: Hormel FoodsCondensing economizers

For more than 30 years, boiler-stack economizers have been used in our facilities to capture heat energy that would otherwise be lost in the flue gas discharged to the atmosphere. The recovered energy is used to preheat the boiler feedwater, which reduces the fuel consumed by the boilers. In the past few years, condensing economizers have been added to two types of systems: boiler systems that already have stack economizers to recover additional energy, and boilers that, for one reason or another, did not previously have a stack economizer.

A condensing economizer extracts not only the sensible heat available in the flue gas, but also the latent heat that is available when the flue gas vapors are cooled to the point where they condense. The latent heat is significant. The carbon-steel heat-exchanger coil typically used in a stack economizer cannot operate as a condensing economizer because it will be quickly corroded by the acidic condensate that forms when combustion flue gases are condensed. A condensing economizer is designed so that all parts of the economizer that come into contact with the acidic condensate are made of corrosion-resistant materials.

As with all projects that our engineering team designs and installs, the success of the project depends on understanding how it supports the facility and the processes at that facility. In order to fully use the heat available from a condensing economizer, we perform an evaluation to determine where heat energy is needed at the facility.

Every facility is unique. As a result, two entirely different designs of condensing economizers have been installed, and we have used several variations on each of these designs. One of the designs brings the flue gases into direct contact with the water being heated, while a different design uses a stainless-steel heat-exchange coil. Both designs have proven successful in achieving the goals set for the specific projects. In some cases, water for boilers is preheated, while other cases are heating water for other purposes in the facility.

Recently, a condensing economizer was installed on a process stack that is not a boiler. The heat being recovered from this natural gas-fired process heats water used for sterilization purposes. This installation has proven successful, and we intend to evaluate additional non-boiler applications.

Closed-loop cooling

Many processes within a manufacturing facility require cooling to remove heat that is generated by the equipment or by the process itself. Water is often used as the medium to provide the cooling. Many facilities discharge this cooling water as wastewater. Closed-loop cooling water systems have been used to remove heat energy from equipment and processes at our facilities for many years. The water in the closed loop is used to remove the heat energy and transport it to a place where it can be rejected so that the water can then be used for cooling again. Sometimes the heat is rejected to the atmosphere (i.e., cooling tower), but when possible, the heat is used as a source of energy for another process in the facility.

In recent years, we improved existing closed-loop cooling systems and installed new systems where they had not previously been considered. Improvements have included using the heat energy where it had been previously rejected to the atmosphere and adding controls that maximize the net energy recovered. Combining multiple processes into a single cooling loop improves the efficiency and reduces the cost of installation. However, it makes the design of the system much more complex. Understanding the requirements of each individual process is essential to the success of the overall system.

Some of the most innovative designs that Hormel Foods teams have developed include recovering heat through series flow and then using it again by transferring it to other processes in series. In these designs, the cooling water first flows through a process that requires a relatively low operating temperature and then through additional processes that operate at a much higher temperature. Using series flow allows us to minimize the energy used to pump the cooling water. It also maximizes the heat energy that can be recovered for a useful purpose by elevating the cooling water temperature more than it would be if each process was handled separately.

To be a sustainable company with complicated manufacturing operations requires the ideas of employees who are encouraged and rewarded for thinking sustainably, and management who undertake projects based on understanding what can be measured, the unique needs of the facility, and the impact to existing systems.

Raymond is the director of environmental sustainability for Hormel Foods and is based in Austin, Minn. He is responsible for directing the environmental compliance and sustainability efforts for Hormel Foods manufacturing plants. Sayles is the manager of mechanical and electrical engineering for the Corporate Engineering Division at Hormel Foods. He oversees the design of all mechanical and electrical systems within Hormel Foods, both for new construction and modification of existing facilities.

Progressive Processing meets quality, environmental goals

Courtesy: Hormel FoodsDesigning a new facility for food production while incorporating the latest environmental sustainability standards requires a delicate balance. At Hormel Foods, opening Progressive Processing LLC in Dubuque, Iowa in 2010 was the result of an exercise of these elements.

While the engineering team at Hormel Foods designed the plant to meet the desired outcome of manufacturing products for the Grocery Products division, they conducted a review of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. This decision was made because LEED certification is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using sustainable strategies.

Minor modifications to the original plans resulted in Progressive Processing receiving LEED Gold. Today, the facility produces Hormel Compleats microwave meals and Valley Fresh chunk chicken. It was one of the first manufacturing plants to be a LEED-certified project at any level.

Once the team decided to pursue LEED certification, it worked through the LEED certification guidelines, which were not developed for refrigerated manufacturing plants like Progressive Processing. The process started by identifying items that were possible to achieve at the facility and identifying what would not work given the requirements needed to produce food products.

Trying to compare plans to the standard design for LEED certification proved to be difficult and resulted in our engineering team researching available background from other projects that did not fit within the outlined standards, but were submitted for certification. The team focused on how those other projects developed and successfully demonstrated how their newly created items achieved LEED certification. In addition to learning from others, the team also developed new technologies to meet unique needs at Progressive Processing.

Our team that designed and built Progressive Processing was determined to set a new industry standard with this facility, and their tenacity and dedication has proven to be successful. Today, we are proud that many companies request information about Progressive Processing as they seek to build new facilities or improve existing operations.