Sniffing out Energy Efficiency Projects at Firmenich

By: Rich Grousset, 2011 EDF Climate Corps Fellow at Firmenich, MBA/MS Candidate at University of Michigan's Erb Institute

Can you name a company in the flavor and fragrance industry? Not a brand name perfume or beverage you and I would find at the store, but a company that actually creates the smells and flavors in the products we use every day? I couldn't until I came across Firmenich on the list of companies participating in the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) Climate Corps program this summer. After doing a bit of research and learning of the company's commitment to sustainability, my curiosity took over and I listed the company as my top choice.

Firmenich was founded in Geneva, Switzerland in the late 1800s. With over 6000 employees in 64 countries, it's now the largest privately-owned company in the flavor and fragrance industry. Firmenich's people are trained experts in taste and smell who create perfumes and flavors for the world's most popular brands. My job as an EDF Climate Corps fellow though is to identify energy efficiency opportunities at the North American headquarters in Princeton, NJ, with a particular focus on heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

Where to start?

The 18 buildings on this campus vary in age from 8 to 60 years and their functional purposes include industrial, laboratory, office, and even wastewater treatment. With such a variety of building types and purposes, deciding how to get started was more than slightly daunting. Fortunately, EDF provided all 57 of us fellows with a three-day training, a handbook and, new this year, a "barriers to energy efficiency" tool with 28 pages of questions to ask during our first weeks on the job. Though analyzing energy usage data was also an essential first step, it was the conversations sparked by the barriers tool that created a useful background and narrative around the numbers.

HVAC...It's Complicated

Commercial HVAC systems are more complicated than I originally thought, especially in a newer office and laboratory building with sensors, controls, and countless variable air volume (VAV) boxes. Completed in 2004 and weighing in at 115,000 square feet, Firmenich's Prism building is the newest and largest on campus. However, as I learned during a free online training for EPA's Portfolio Manager, building age is not a significant predictor of efficient performance – it's all about operations and management. Indeed, analysis of energy usage data revealed that the Prism building had a particularly high energy use intensity (kBtu per square foot per year) when compared to a functionally similar, yet slightly older, building on campus.

The scent was getting stronger...but how would someone with no background in HVAC systems begin to decipher whether or not such a complex system is performing properly?

Seek Professional Help

Fortunately, after discussing the issue with facilities managers, they asked an HVAC engineer to do a preliminary investigation. He found a number of issues with the building management system's (BMS) programming and how systems were responding to its commands. Or not responding, for that matter. For example, four exhaust fans were running continuously when only two were needed after hours. All three chiller units were being used at partial capacity instead of one being used at maximum capacity and the others being used only when needed.

While a retro-commissioning (RCx) project is needed to ensure a holistic approach to optimizing the HVAC system, it will likely pay for itself in two years or less. Fixing even just the few issues already identified by the engineer is expected to reduce the entire building's electricity use by around 25%. For a 115,000 square foot facility with a lot of laboratory space, that is definitely not pocket change.

Lesson Learned

Keeping complicated building systems running efficiently requires vigilance and technical expertise. Because building systems naturally degrade and go "out of tune" over time, periodic retro-commissioning and continuous commissioning are two good options to ensure systems run according to specifications year after year. Sub-metering and web-based monitoring systems also make it significantly easier for busy facility managers to notice when something is out of whack.

After a whirlwind ten weeks, I am enjoying the sweet smell of success. Literally…the company gave me a bottle of its exclusive, private-label fragrance that is not for sale anywhere. Seriously, though, I am fortunate to have been matched with Firmenich. Sustainability has been a part of the DNA here for decades but, along with thousands of other businesses around the world, the company is now trying to fully understand how to incorporate energy efficiency into its decision making. I'm glad I was able to join this team, to learn from them, and to contribute to their efforts during this exciting time.

EDF Climate Corps matches trained students from leading business schools with companies to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.