According to the U.S. Department of Energy, food service has the highest energy intensity of any sector, followed by healthcare—a fair incentive for taking a closer look at energy costs related to healthcare food service operations. Healthcare facilities often place their kitchens on the backburner. Even those that can tout overall energy conservation successes voice frustration with their outdated food service equipment and lack of buy-in from leadership on greening the kitchen.

But there is an example out there of what can be done by launching energy programs in institutional food services.

In 2008, Harvard University made a commitment to make a 30 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2016, and sustainability is a core value for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS). That commitment includes purchasing and operational practices that sustain the health and well-being of the environment, a foundational charter that’s led to sustainable design principles for renovations and new construction.

Harvard began assessing its campus kitchens in the mid-’90s. Serving 25,000 meals daily across the campus, the university’s overall goal was to bring small-batch cooking to the dining experience and become more efficient in the throughput of diners. Challenges included limited footprints, historic buildings, and distinct styles for each location that had to be maintained.

The continuous upgrade of one or two kitchens per year over the course of 10 years yielded plenty of lessons on the sustainability front, too, and in 2006 HUDS’ Mather/Dunster House kitchen received the nation’s very first LEED for Commercial Interiors certification. The 15,870-square-foot kitchen achieved all 30 of the points submitted, earning a LEED Silver rating.

 

The right equipment matters

By making changes to refrigeration controls, exhaust fan controls, dishwashing equipment, and refrigeration waste heat capture, $245,000 in annual utility savings was achieved, which translates to 12,454 metric tons of carbon dioxide; 1,088,089 kWh of electricity; 4,533 MMBtu of steam; and 1,518,666 gallons of water.

 

Exhaust hoods also offered an opportunity for conservation. The hoods installed have sensors that power them up or down, as needed, which reduces running time by 50 percent, which also benefits the life of the equipment. The cost was $75,000 (in addition to a rebate from the local utility company) to install the controls, with an annual savings of $25,000, or a three-year payback. Harvard also installed a heat recovery unit to capture the heat generated from refrigeration. The reclaimed heat is now used to preheat water. The project cost approximately $17,000 and saved approximately $24,000 in the first year—less than a one-year payback.  
 
Reusable dishware and water-efficient dishwashers are critical for the operation. The water-efficient washer saved the campus 500,000 gallons of hot water per year and reduced soap procurement. The water is used to rinse the dishware, the food waste is pulped to prepare it for compost, and the waste water is recycled to be used again for dish rinsing. Aerators installed in prep sinks offer another opportunity for reduced water waste: Pre-rinse spray valves loosen food from large pots and large pans before washing. Standard valves use 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM) of hot water, whereas the new spray valves use only 0.95 GPM. The staff reports that the new spray valves perform as well as or better than previous models. 
 
 
Certification strategy
While institutions don’t need to be LEED-certified to have effective green strategies in place, Harvard finds LEED certification beneficial because of the third-party accountability that it brings. Andrea Ruedy Trimble, senior program manager at Harvard Green Building Services, explains, “It would be easy for Harvard to claim that we’re green, but by pursuing actual certification, we’re able to use a consensus-based, widely adopted method to verify these claims. We also find the actual LEED documentation beneficial for knowledge management, and believe that by documenting the sustainable elements of projects, we’re better able to continually improve from project to project, especially within a highly decentralized university.”
 
As another way to keep sustainability at the forefront in its kitchens, the university created the Green Skillet Program, through which kitchens compete against one another’s green initiatives. “The Green Skillet taught them that they didn’t need to turn the oven on when they walked in the door and didn’t need it to preheat for too long,” Trimble says. 
 
 
Teaching by design
Education on sustainability is integrated into the design of Harvard’s kitchens, too. Thoughtful planning on educational opportunities adds to a more cohesive end product, avoiding signs posted later rather than as part of the overall design and project theme. Digital displays allow for flexibility in messaging and are helpful in kicking off new initiatives. Other educational tips include a napkin holder side for messaging (on a dispenser that gives one napkin per time), table tents, and kitchen tours.
 
After completing its new kitchens, Harvard subsequently returned to its existing kitchens and retrofitted the existing equipment to implement the same conservation programs in all kitchens throughout the campus.
 
And the kitchens are just a piece of the campus’ comprehensive green building program, with green standards applied to all projects over $100,000 and LEED Gold required as a minimum for new construction and major renovation, Trimble says. Those standards include more aggressive water and energy reduction targets and process-oriented requirements, like integrated design, charrettes, and life-cycle costing. These efforts ensure that environmentally friendly initiatives and long-term paybacks are considered during the decision-making and design process.
 
As hospital energy teams work toward their own campus green goals, it’s critical that the energy intensity—and associated costs—of running institutional kitchens is part of the overall energy conservation discussion.