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What do good cheese and energy efficiency have in common?

4 min read
Middlebury, VT

Making an award-winning Vermont cheddar cheese doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and hard work from Vermont dairy farmers and world class cheesemakers, like those at the century-old Cabot Creamery. Similarly, energy efficiency takes time and commitment. Each investment reaps rewards in energy and cost savings for months and years to come. Each project improves the efficiency of the process or the building.

The Agri-Mark farmer-owned co-operative, best known for its flagship Cabot® brand of dairy products, understands both dairy processing and the process of pursuing energy efficiency. As a certified B Corp, Cabot is committed to sustainability. And in a competitive industry, cost savings are critical.

Seeking continuous energy improvements

In 2016, Cabot joined a cohort of Vermont dairy companies led by Efficiency Vermont. The goal was to improve the competitiveness of Vermont’s dairy industry by sharing and implementing solutions to save energy and money. The group explored ways to improve efficiency in their businesses. The companies shared similar energy challenges. By collaborating with refrigeration efficiency experts and each other, they had the opportunity to learn and adopt best practices.

This work was part of Efficiency Vermont’s Continuous Energy Improvement (CEI) initiative. The CEI program promotes operational and behavioral changes to drive energy savings. Cabot has continued to partner with Efficiency Vermont to implement efficiency measures. Through this partnership, Cabot is saving energy year after year.

Images provided by Agri-Mark

Ongoing improvements save energy and money

The Agri-Mark/Cabot plant in Middlebury formed an energy management team. The group meets with Efficiency Vermont every six weeks to develop and track projects across the facility. Early on, the energy management team identified compressed air leaks as a source of energy waste. Compressed air is used to operate equipment throughout the plant, from the cheesemaking equipment to the whey plant driers – literally from curds to whey. When the system leaks, more compressed air is required to reach the same level of production. Now, maintenance staff survey the entire system each quarter and track and repair every leak they find. Seems simple, but this has a huge impact. Over the last two years, repairing the leaks found using this method has saved the plant nearly $50,000.

“Efficiency Vermont helped us focus on the low hanging fruit. These relatively small upfront investments are making a big impact over time. They've provided the resources and ongoing support to improve the efficiency of our operations each year.”

Jim Tringe, Director of Plant Services, Agri-Mark
What's next for efficiency, and cheese

The Middlebury team is also looking for ways to turn off or turn down machinery that is not in use. They are looking to solutions like variable frequency drives (VFDs). VFDs allow operators to run fans and pumps at the optimal speed, running only as much as they need. Instead of a simple on-off switch, the machine can now optimize speed, saving energy when it’s not needed. VFDs have already been installed on vacuum pumps and glycol chiller loops throughout the plant and are saving nearly $86,000 each year. Now the team is investigating how more drives could provide increased energy savings.

Lighting is one of the biggest pieces of the Middlebury plant’s electric bill. The plant first upgraded some of its lights to efficient LEDs in 2018, an investment that is saving over $25,000 in electric costs annually. But just like the cheesemakers keep working to achieve the perfect cheddar, the energy team is striving for 100% LED in an upcoming project.

Reaching this milestone will bring huge energy savings. Efficiency Vermont staff estimate that the plant will pay back the upfront investment in less than two years. That’s not all: the longer lifespan of LED lights means less maintenance and better light for staff working at the plant.

“Energy is a major expense across our operations in Vermont,” said Jed Davis, Director of Sustainability at Cabot. “When we’re investing in efficiency, we’re investing in the future of our business. But more than that, we’re investing in our workers and in the Green Mountain State by improving the quality of our plants and reducing our energy impact.”

The money saved on energy expenses can circulate back into supporting what Cabot does best – making world-class cheddar cheese and ensuring the livelihood of their co-operative’s dairy farm family owners.