Bottlemaker, building owners embrace efficiencies & save big

Greg Rhames has been studying energy efficiency like Humphrey Bogart on the case of the Maltese Falcon.

Any clue, no matter how tiny, can yield a break in the case. And in Rhames' Madera manufacturing plant, it's the little things that add up big. Real big.

Rhames, energy manager for Verallia, a subsidiary of winemaker Saint Gobain, rattles off the upgrades and system refinements at his facility like only somebody intimately familiar with their complex industrial workings can. His fixes havve resulted in energy cost savings of about 20 percent.

Put another way: Utility bills have gone from $1 million a month some years back to about $800,000.

"A little savings can go a long way," Rhames says.

Less power, more cash

Energy efficiency continues to gain proponents across the corporate spectrum, especially as its value can be immedicately seen in reduced energy and operations costs. With recent federal encouragement through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, local governments have taken up the banner, installing myriad retrofits and sometimes preventing economic-related layoffs in the process.

Universities and government agencies have begun to retrofit entire buildings to conform to the stringent Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings through the U.S. Green Building Council. The rigorous LEED certification process has multiple levels, right up the line to platinum. About 9 billion square feet of building space participates in the suite of ratings programs.

In fact, platinum LEED is the high-orbital level that the University of California Merced is pursuing for many of its buildings on campus. The university, like other institutions of higher learning, has discovered that not only does meeting the rigorous environmental standards earn the goodwill of its students, but the enhanced building techniques, retrofits and materials enable it to better deal with crippling state budget cuts.

LEED gains increasing foothold

A little to the south of Rhames in Fresno, the former headquarters of regional clothing retailer Gottschalks has undergone a serious transformation. The 88,000-square-foot property at 9 River Park Place East was in sad shape back in 2009 when the retailer closed and sold off assets to pay creditors.

Don Veatch, property manager for Lance-Kashian & Co., says the owners are progressive and looking to give the property an edge. The building received extensive upgrades, and it's a candidate for a LEED gold rating.

Rhames and Veatch presented their project accomplishments before a recent meeting of the Economic Development Corporation serving Fresno County's Clean Energy Cluster.

"We had to make a lot of changes," Veatch says, referring to water, lighting, AC and roof upgrades. "It's quite extensive," but "we thought it was the right thing to do."

Veatch says additional payback will come as the building attracts bigger and better tenants. It already has attracted Decipher Inc., a marketing research services provider that significantly expanded its Fresno offices.

Metering & monitoring is key

Energy efficiencies pay off in other ways, Rhames says.

"You can get a lot more light with a lot less energy," he says. But Rhames says the key is in the metering and monitoring, even after the upgrades have been done.

"It's critical," he says.

Verallia produces more than a million wine and champagne bottles every day in its Madera plant, using manufacturing processes that require a huge amount of glass feedstock and compressed air, which is used to blow the near molten bottles into shape, writes John Kalkowski of Packaging Digest. All that air, measured in cubic feet per minute, "does not come cheap," Kalkowski says.

The plant recently became the first Verallia North America facility to achieve the International Standards Organization's 14001:2004 environmental certification, a rating that means it minimizes its impact on the environment, complies with applicable laws and regulations and works toward continuous improvement.

Minimize the footprint

Verallia officials say the certification "is an essential part of Verallia’s strategy to minimize its environmental footprint through targeted efforts in the manufacturing process."

Rhames explains that much of his job requires him to investigate the various pathways of that air and search for unexplained consumption. He says in one case, his electronic monitors showed a major decline in airflow after a retrofit. But then the monitors showed a steady increase. It turns out a faulty piece of equipment had sprung a leak, something that wouldn't have been noticed without strict monitoring, he says.

He's also to the first to admit he's not performing some sort of miraculous transformation on the 42-year-old glass plant. "For the most part, I'm not recreating the wheel," he says. "I don't do anything until PG&E says I'll save money on it."