This column originally ran in the April 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.

After years of advice, prodding, urging and incentivizing, manufacturers are greener than ever, and so are their pocket books.

When I was a child, my brother and I would play a little game, flipping on light switches and counting the minutes until my dad turned them off. He told us that someday we’d pay the electric bill and he’d have the last laugh, watching us pad around turning out lights just like he had.

Much like my dad, American manufacturers are acutely aware of the cost of energy and of the enormous savings that smart energy consumption can generate. According to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average retail price of electricity for industrial customers has risen steadily from 5.05 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2001 to 6.82 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2011. While this increase closely mirrors the rate of inflation, manufacturers have been proactive in adopting energy efficient equipment and procedures in order to reduce energy-related expenses.

And they’ve had some help. The California Energy Commission identifies the following eight “best practices” in energy consumption in manufacturing:

  • Increase the Efficiency of Motors and Systems
  • Improve Building Lighting
  • Upgrade Heating, Ventilating and Cooling
  • Capture the Benefits of Utility Competition
  • Empower Your Employees To Do More
  • Use Water Reduction Practices
  • Use the Internet
  • Implement Comprehensive Facility Energy and Environmental Management

ENERGY STAR, a joint effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, echoes many of these directives in its own advice on “energy efficiency opportunities,” urging manufacturers to:

  • Measure and track energy performance.
  • Improve common plant systems such as motors, compressed air, steam, process heating, etc. 
  • Turn off what is not required.
  • Get employees involved.
  • Check the lights.

By utilizing these and other methods, the U.S. manufacturing sector has managed to decrease total energy consumption by 17 percent between 2002 and 2010, according to a report released last month by the EIA. The EIA breaks energy into two segments: fuel (energy used to power a facility) and feedstock (input that becomes final product). According to the report, the food manufacturing sector was one of two manufacturing industry segments (along with petroleum/coal) that increased fuel energy consumption by 3.5 percent. However, during the period covered in the EIA report, the food manufacturing sector increased output by five percent, meaning less total energy was spent per finished unit in 2010 than was in 2002.

The EIA found that along with a 5 percent increase in finished goods, the food industry cut 115,000 jobs over the eight-year period covered by the report. This data shows that food manufacturing companies are now turning fewer man hours and less energy into more food products.

Like all stories of its kind, mine ends this way: my dad was right. I now diligently turn out every light before I leave the room and make sure all the gaps around the windows are sealed up tight before winter hits. But new technology and energy improvements have allowed me to enhance my family’s heirloom thriftiness, ensuring that my window air conditioner is ENERGY STAR-rated, the automatic thermostat is set to 66 degrees while I’m at work, and all my light bulbs have been replaced with CFLs and LEDs.

Manufacturers, too, have found that diligence is key in reducing energy costs, but embracing new technologies will take them to the next level.