Not many things these days can truly be called “something new under the sun.” But Frito-Lay North America’s snack-processing plant in Casa Grande, Ariz. is one of them. Opened in 1984, the plant is possibly the most sustainable facility of its kind in the U.S. Combiningsustainabilityfor the future, a learning site and snack production, the facility currently serves a seven-state snack distribution network on a sprawling 280 acres in the Sonoran Desert. Occupying 170,000 sq. ft. of total space, with 160,000 sq. ft. under one roof, the Casa Grande plant is part of Frito-Lay’s

Mountain Region, one of 12 different geographic regions of production throughout the country. Much of the energy-saving technology at the location can be found in other Frito-Lay facilities, but nowhere near this scale.

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery toured the Casa Grande complex, which is staffed by about 380 operations team members and has five snack production lines overall that produce and package 250 stock-keeping units at rates of about 100 million lb. of product annually. That translates to more than 430 million bags of chips.

Responsible for Frito-Lay’s core products, including Fritos corn chips, Doritos, Santitas and Tostitos tortilla chips, Cheetos cheese flavored snacks, Lays Classic potato chips, Ruffles potato chips and SunChips multigrain snacks, all in several flavors and bag sizes, the Casa Grande plant is one of 40 Frito-Lay plants in the U.S. and Canada.

Casa Grande has forged ahead with its revolutionary environmental initiatives, what it calls the Near Net Zero (NNZ) program, and is now a showcase of Frito-Lay’s and PepsiCo’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

Among many other accomplishments, the pioneering plant generates 66% of all the energy it uses from renewable sources and has reached the following:

Recycling 75% of its water via its own water-reclamation facility; reducing 50% of its greenhouse gasses; and 80% of its use of natural gas.

In 2010, the facility was able to cut the overall waste it sends to landfills down to 1%, thanks to an extensive recycling program and reuses its food waste for cattle feed.

The water recovery/reclamation facility installed in 2010 combines a membrane bioreactor (MBR) and low-pressure reverse osmosis (RO) technology to recycle 50-75% of the process water used. All of the recycled process water used at the facility meets primary and secondary drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The facility’s advanced filtration infrastructure reclaims all but the sanitary water stream, returning water coming into the plant for reuse.

Renewable steam, courtesy of a newly installed biomass boiler, which generates up to 60,000 lb. of steam/hour. The boiler burns wood, pulp and agricultural waste as its combustion energy source. The boiler affords all of the steam needed for the manufacturing plant and reduces natural gas use by more than 80%.

Five separate solar photovoltaic (PV) fields are positioned throughout the property, generating nearly 10 million kilowatts of electrical power. Two fields of single-axis tracking PVs equipped with more than 18,000 solar panels were installed on 36 acres of the facility’s agricultural (former cropland) property. The thousands of solar panels and dishes make for an impressive site upon entering the area.

Three additional PV fields include a dual-axis solar-tracking system; a single-axis tracking system that doubles as a covered parking lot for staff and visitors; and 10 sterling engine dual-axis tracking systems.

Developed in 1999, the plant’s Near Net Zero program, which is based on a goal of reaching net-zero impact on the environment, falls under the direction of corporate engineer Al Halvorsen, now senior director of sustainability at parent company PepsiCo. Halvorsen gave SF&WB a guided tour of this sustainable snack manufacturing complex.

Halvorsen is passionate about the plant not only because he helped spearhead this endeavor, but it’s where he started his career with Frito-Lay in 1988. He recalls when the plant was built: “When we made the decision to create a Near Net Zero plant, one of the considerations was that we needed a lot of land and space to install a lot of new technology. We set very aggressive goals, but never put a timeline on them.”

Halvorsen’s first role at Frito-Lay was as a maintenance supervisor on the second shift at this very plant. “I helped run the plant and maintain the equipment with the mechanics, so this started my career there,” he says. “For the last seven years, I have been working at our Plano, Texas, headquarters, helping lead our energy and environmental sustainability programs.”

In January, he was promoted to a similar role for parent company PepsiCo, but on a much broader scale. “I’ve gone from having the environmental responsibility for 40 plants to about 400 plants worldwide, which includes beverages, snacks, dairy, yogurt and all of the other products PepsiCo produces. We have a huge growth rate internationally and a lot of opportunities there, so it’s a very exciting time in my career, going to an even bigger, broader sustainability job for PepsiCo.”

Moving off the grids

Why Near Net Zero and not Net Zero? “As we started the concept, it was a way to take a manufacturing plant off of the grids,” Halvorsen answers. “That means take it off of the water, electric and natural gas grid. That was the foundation of the question we raised and that started the entire ball rolling. We’re forging ahead, though we’re not quite there yet where we can say Net Zero. But we’re pretty close.”

The industry-leading plant is also certified Gold in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It has earned the EPA’s Energy Star certification and has received numerous other environmental awards. It’s Frito-Lay’s first facility to achieve LEED Gold certification for an existing building, though 26 other PepsiCo sites globally are LEED-certified.

Other plants have larger solar fields and biomass boilers are nothing new, Halvorsen explains. “People have been burning wood to generate steam for decades in the wood industry and pallet manufacturing,” he says. “But when you combine water recovery with large-scale photovoltaic solar panels; a biomass boiler; waste-heat recovery and energy efficiency; zero landfill programs; LEED certification programs; an engaged, motivated workforce; and a highly efficient fleet program that improves tractor/trailer and route truck fuel use, I don’t think there’s another manufacturing plant out there that has done as much on the path to Net Zero as we have here. So it’s not just one piece of technology—we’ve got (at least) 10 things all working in unison, which is really the innovative thing that we’re trying to do going forward.”

Bringing technology to life

The steps to reaching Near Net Zero were by no means comparable to walking down a garden path, Halvorsen points out. “It’s not like we knew where we were headed,” he says. “If you look at it, it’s not that challenging to work on any one of these projects individually. The challenge was to combine all of them at the same time. We didn’t have all of the answers—we aren’t visionaries who all of a sudden had a design that clicked.

“We learned as we went along and stumbled. But we certainly knew the path we were taking and we have a very strong engineering team. I also loved the fact that I started working for Frito-Lay at this location, so I knew the plant, the people and the technology in place. It kind of brought me back home.”

Sometimes the team took two steps forward and one step back, so the project seemed like a long journey, Halvorsen remembers. “In the scheme of things, right now, we’re about 75% off the water grid,” he explains. “But to get to the next level, we’d need a larger, incremental area, so we took it from 0 to 80%, which is great. However going from 80- to 90% is a real issue and from 90- to 100% is even more of a challenge.”

The NNZ team knew going into the project that there would be certain hurdles to doing everything, Halvorsen says. “We’d run into a hurdle and change course a bit, steer around that hurdle and run into another hurdle. So that was the process. We partnered with the National Renewable Energy Lab among other groups to provide assistance. There were certain hurdles to tackling just about everything.”

The National Renewable Energy Lab mapped out and compared Frito-Lay locations across North America to determine which had the best size, available land, renewable technology compatibility and other logistics, using a wealth of data to ultimately select the Casa Grande plant.

The team also included a combination of system integrators, solar experts, biomass experts, water-reclamation experts and others. “Our engineers worked on finding the right intelligence, contractors and analysts to ensure we had the right things in place going forward,” Halvorsen recalls.

The team improved plant lighting and landfill reductions. “We haven’t sent waste to a landfill for the last nine months to a year, so we’re off of the landfill grid as well,” he says.

At the start of the ambitious project, Frito-Lay created its own mini department of energy, which executes energy audits for all of its plants each year. “That took place in 1999, and really started the whole foundation for the program at this facility,” Halvorsen explains. “We set some very aggressive goals here, on trying to reduce the amount of water we use as a company by 50%, natural gas by 30% and electricity by 25%, and it just escalated into something like this. We had the location, a lot of acreage and land for PVs, so then we wondered if we had enough biomass to run the plant. We began investigating wood sources, construction debris, pallet board sources and it all started to align.”

Biomass boiler 

The massive biomass boiler burns wood chips from old pallets and agricultural waste from surrounding communities, producing all of the steam the manufacturing plant needs to process things like cooking corn and rinsing potatoes, while the PV fields generate about 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The payback on this one pricey item alone certainly won’t come in three or four years, but the company is seeing paybacks, Halvorsen acknowledges. “We have seen them, though this isn’t our typical energy project,” he says. “But we were able to convince the organization that developing this showcase pushes the boundaries of typical returns.”

A conveyor takes wood waste up to the boiler, which also has emission controls. “The emissions are very clean,” he adds. “We don’t see a lot of smoke. We also have several dust-collection systems so it burns very cleanly.” High-efficiency oven burners, controls and waste heat recovery for the ovens also helps. A discharge system collects the ash, which is sold to fertilizer companies.

The wood transfers to a set of chutes to grates within the boiler. “The boiler produces all of the steam for all of our fryers that cook our products,” explains Ronaldo Luna, maintenance/engineering director. “Pipes take the steam all the way to the plant and the steam is used in heated chambers. The wood waste is shoveled on a grate into the boiler. All the heat is surrounded by water wall tubes. It’s like a kettle at home—when it squeals, it means steam is being produced. We produce steam from the wood waste at a rate of about 40,000 lb. an hour for all five production lines.”

Solar energy

Halvorsen admits the company needed quite a bit of room to install all of the PVs, and Arizona is also one of the sunniest places in the country. Water is scarce in the desert location, which is about an hour outside of Phoenix. “It’s not something everyone can do,” he says. “This is actually two separate PV fields. One side is owned by Frito-Lay and the other side is owned by what we call a power-purchase agreement that we developed with a third party and a local utility in a partnership.”

The array of 18,000 single-axis solar-tracking PV panels generate DC current that runs through inverters to become AC current. The voltage is then sent to the manufacturing plant. “We save 50% of our electricity,” Halvorsen says. “So going forward, we want to try to narrow that gap.”

The 10 dishlike Stirling engine dual-axis systems dot a field behind the main snack plant. These work differently than the single-axis PVs. The heat of the sun is concentrated by parabolic mirrors on the engines, which move a piston back and forth. The movement drives a flywheel, which drives an electrical generator, and produces electricity. “These solar Stirling engines focus the energy in the center and concentrate the sun’s energy right on the focal point,” he says. “That energy is about 1,800 degrees F.”

When the well runs dry

A water-recovery unit with a wastewater treatment system is located on about five acres of the production plant grounds, and use high-tech membranes and reverse osmosis (RO) technology to recycle as much as 75% of the water that runs through the facility.

For a desert town that may get no more than a dozen inches of rain each year, water efficiency and reuse is critical and could be vital one day. The membrane bioreactor has a storage capacity of 1.2 million gallons and was the first major installation at the plant. The reactor can reclaim 650,000 gallons of water a day depending on production and allows the site to reuse half of the water it taps from local municipalities.

The facility uses about 400,000 gallons of water each day to make its product. Potatoes for the chips and corn for the tortilla chip products are put through a solids-removal process so that small corn kernels, husks and other waste products are “dewatered” and filtered. All of that material goes to cattle feed, so it’s not wasted. The wastewater also moves through two primary clarifiers that allow it to settle, removing and separating the oils from the solids. The purification technology, with includes carbon filtration, incorporates ultraviolet, low-pressure RO, water stabilization and disinfection. The bioreactor employs chemistry as well as biology—microbes “digest” the solids in the water and live for 20 to 28 days—and they keep reproducing. Halvorsen says the resulting water is treated to EPA primary and secondary drinking water quality standards, allowing it to be reused to wash and move potatoes and corn—presumed a first in the country for a food-processing plant.

“This was in development for quite a while,” he notes. “We’re trying to close the loop on water use and recovery. We looked at this more as an R&D investment because we pay fractions for water in the U.S., in terms of what it’s really worth, when you think about it. What happens when it costs $10 or $20 a gallon? What happens if water’s just not there, especially here in the desert Southwest. We can’t go on each year, facing potentially challenging water availability.” The technology could be applied to any production facility, he says.

Chipping away at snack production

Casa Grande is also the location for Frito-Lay’s most recent SunChips line. SunChips incidentally debuted on the market packaged in biodegradable bags.  “We added it about two years ago now,” Halvorsen says. “Our master plan was to take an existing facility and transform it with the Near Net Zero project, which came about at the same time we needed to add a SunChips line.” Housed in its own 40,000-sq.-ft. room, the SunChips line incorporates several new packaging machines, including nine high-speed vertical form/fill/seal bagging lines as well as automatic seasoning systems and robotic case packing and palletizing equipment.

There are also 40 bagmakers, a 70,000-sq.-ft. warehouse that stores pallets nine racks high and one of the company’s first automated product storage/retrieval systems. “We are continuing to investigate the technology and try to find more efficient ways to reduce the amount of packaging we use,” notes Halvorsen.

“That goes not just for Frito-Lay but for PepsiCo as well. Our snack packaging is pretty efficient already in terms of weight and delivery efficiency. And we do a lot of recycling and have a return program for our paperboard shipping cases. With the direct-store delivery, we get our shipping cases back from the retailers as well so some of our cases can be reused six, seven and eight times.”

Electric delivery vehicles and natural route gas trucks are also part of the eco-friendly efforts to close the energy loop. “We run our own truck fleet here,” Halvorsen says. “PepsiCo has a very large trucking fleet as well. We have tractor/trailers that use compressed natural gas versus diesel fuel. And we own a lot of our tractors and trailers and all of our route trucks. So as a company, we’re not just a chip manufacturer, we’re also a direct-store delivery company. Frito-Lay delivers products all the way to the store shelves so that it’s only touched by Frito-Lay employees and the consumer throughout the supply chain.”

The site has a compressor station and the company owns about 50 specially outfitted trucks. “We’ll have about another 50 by the end of this year,” he points out. “The trucks can go only 600 miles, so there must be a suitable fueling station at the end of its destination,” Halvorsen says. The fuel station infrastructure isn’t completely in place just yet, but that’s all part of the experimental process.

An ongoing process

While much of Halvorsen’s work at the showcase facility could be considered “complete,” he says the sustainability efforts there will never be finished. Casa Grande is an ongoing testing site and best practices location that meshes with parent company PepsiCo’s “Performance with a Purpose” strategy to ensure long-term growth, providing healthier product choices to consumers, using technology that can reduce reliance on natural resources and cultivate its employees’ talent.

“When the company created our own department of energy, we didn’t do it thinking we’d go into a project like this—we got involved in a ton of sustainable projects, from electricity savings and water conservation to natural gas conservation and lowering landfill use,” he says. “That set the foundation for this larger program.”

 Projects like these, however, must be justified. “We’re seeing energy reductions each year, anywhere from $4 to $8 million,” he says. “That showed the organization that the value [of the program] was there. If we did nothing since 1999 and kept the same energy operating rates and ran the way we would otherwise, we would have spent—in 2010 dollars—as much as $80 million more in 2010 than we actually did. But productivity really drove this program, and that helped put something like this on the table, but we really must value programs like this, so we try to continue driving them.”

As “green” and innovative as it is, the facility may not be reproducible elsewhere, due to the different logistics each existing facility possesses, though there are many other sustainable manufacturing programs taking place at other Frito-Lay and PepsiCo plants. “Our other plants may not have all of the sustainable features this one has certainly, but we challenge them to do what they can with what they have available,” says Halvorsen. “Today, we are close to hitting our sustainability goals here in all four technology categories. We have hit our goal for saving natural gas, our electricity goal and have reduced water use—not just at this plant but at all Frito-Lay plants throughout the U.S.”

Halvorsen, corporate Frito-Lay and the rest of the NNZ team view the Casa Grande project as an investment in the future—not just to pay back for today or tomorrow, but for five and 10 years from now. The plant opens its doors to other companies to demonstrate its best practices examples. “These technologies and concepts may be used up in the Northeast or in India, China or anywhere we have food and snack manufacturing plants within PepsiCo,” Halvorsen says. “Now it’s a matter of saying, ‘Let’s test this on an industrial scale and let’s learn from it, understand how it operates and get the cost implications to be prepared for when the well runs dry.’ Going forward here, we will continue to maintain and improve upon the efficiencies we have. We’re working on reducing the costs and environmental impact at all of our manufacturing plants every year. We will continue to do so in order to make our products. We want to take all of the learning we’ve had and set that vision for the future.”

With Halvorsen heading up the projects, Frito-Lay and PepsiCo will get there. SF&WB

Frito-Lay at a Glance

Plant Location: Casa Grande, Ariz.


Plant Size: 160,000 sq. ft.

No. of Lines: 5

No. of Employees: 390

Annual Sales Total: $13 billion (Frito-Lay total)

Brands:  Lay’s and Ruffles potato chips, Cheetos cheese-flavored snacks,

Fritos corn chips, Doritos and Tostitos tortilla chips, SunChips multigrain snacks


Key Personnel

Sr. Director, Sustainability, PepsiCo:
Al Halvorsen

Manufacturing Mgr: Jason Gray

Technical Mgr: Ronaldo Luna

Distribution Mgr.: Dan Nails

Planning Mgr.: Crystal Friedrichsen

Human Resources Mgr.: Carlos Nunez