Cereal, Fruit Snacks, Frosting, and Energy, Oh My: Behind-the-Scenes Tour of General Mills’ Cedar Rapids Plant

By Better Buildings Beat Team on Oct 15, 2015

If you ever wondered about what goes into making a box of cereal, and more specifically, how energy efficient solutions can be incorporated into large-scale food production, read on to get the inside scoop on the Energy Department’s tour of Better Plants Challenge partner General Mills Cedar Rapids cereal, fruit snacks, and frosting plant.

Lynn Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the Department of Energy kicked off the tour by recognizing the General Mills energy and corporate teams for their leadership in pursuing energy efficiency – and in particular highlighting the company’s transparency in sharing with the department and the public the plant’s innovations in energy-saving technology and process.

Media joined Orr and General Mills executives on a tour of the plant, and together they learned from the plant’s energy team how new ways of thinking have played a big part in the strategies deployed at the plant to save energy. Along with completed upgrades to the boiler room and HVAC systems, the energy team has dissected its production processes and is taking new approaches to freezing and packaging that result in significant energy savings. Chocolate chips, were one example provided by the energy team. One of many refrigerated ingredients used at the plant, the team learned that chocolate chips could be kept fresh at temperatures higher than the zero degrees Fahrenheit the company was storing them at. This realization allowed General Mills to move the chips to a smaller space that used significantly less energy for cooling, while freeing up space for warehousing purposes within the plant.  

At various stops along the assembly line, the energy team also showed tour participants how the plant actively monitors operational and energy use data. Displayed in real time on monitors, employees can pinpoint key performance levels across the plant, and be alerted to make adjustments.

"As one of the largest food companies in the world, we can make a huge difference in the sustainability of our operations and the carbon footprint of our plants," said Rue Patel, General Mills' Cedar Rapids plant manager. “I’m proud to have such a strong team that is dedicated to identifying and evaluating energy saving opportunities that are sustainable and scalable both within our plant and all General Mills’ plants around the country.”

The Cedar Rapids plant also features an innovative heat recovery system, which uses “free” waste heat at multiple stages of production. The system recovers the heat from the water used for preparing ingredients and to reduce dehumidification costs. The plant also employs a flash steam system that powers a mechanism needed to keep packaging dry.

General Mills is evaluating similar heat recovery projects at 14 other sites, which could lead to annual savings of about $2 million. The heat recovery project is also reducing water consumption by 2.2 million gallons per year and preventing the release of approximately 5,500 tons of CO2 emissions from the Cedar Rapids site annually.

In just two years, General Mills has reduced energy intensity by 6 percent across its 25 U.S.-based plants in partnership with the Better Plants Challenge. The Cedar Rapids plant saves 23 percent in energy use since 2011, taking about $4.3 million out of the cost of making the cereals, fruit snacks, and frosting produced there.

 Read more about the General Mills Cedar Rapids showcase project and read the press release.

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