Jun 21, 2023

The latest front in the war against gas: Baked goods

Cutting carbon out of making chips? In California, they’re going to try.

The latest front in the war against natural gas is factory-made food. Whether they’re cooked, roasted or smoked, the chips, cookies, muffins, coffee and sausage rolling out of factory kitchens today are largely made in ovens and other equipment that burn methane.

Now, a Southern California air agency is taking aim at those emissions, approving this month what environmentalists call a first-in-the-nation rule requiring many commercial bakeries and other food makers in the greater Los Angeles area to electrify their ovens and smokehouses.

“There’s no reason we should be putting as a default burning methane to produce our cookies and rolls and whatnot,” said Adrian Martinez, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the green group Earthjustice who hopes the Southern California rule spurs regulators in other parts of the country to do the same.

But doughnut makers, tortilla bakers and other commercial cookeries in the region expressed concerns to regulators about higher utility bills and the cost of upgrading equipment, as well as further straining California’s already-stretched grid. Many food makers say today’s electric ovens simply don’t cook as well as gas versions do.

“Not everyone fully appreciates the complications and the challenges that go into the baking sector,” said Rasma Zvaners, a vice president at the American Bakers Association, a trade group representing commercial baked good makers. “It’s not like baking bread at home.”

The local rule arrives as many climate activists focus on taking the gas out of cooking nationwide. A growing stack of studies showing the ill health effects of using a gas range at home has prompted liberal lawmakers to ban gas in many new buildings.

In turn, the gas stove is now a full-fledged culture-war issue, with Republican politicians running ads and advancing bills to protect gas stoves.

Nearly 100 facilities across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties will be subject to the new rule from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), an agency responsible for improving the air quality for 17 million people in Southern California.

Four types of industrial ovens will be subject to a zero-emission standard starting in 2027, meaning companies will need to buy electric ovens when it comes time to replace old gas-burning units after that date. In the short term, food makers must upgrade polluting burners that are older than 10 years. The district’s board approved the rule in an 8-to-1 vote on Aug. 4.

The rule is mainly meant to reduce the amount of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, or NOx, put into the notoriously polluted air around Los Angeles. “We need a tremendous amount of NOx reduction in order to meet federal air quality standards,” said Sarah Rees, a deputy executive officer at AQMD.

But it would also cut climate-warming carbon emissions if manufacturers get their electricity from renewable sources. Companies that will be affected by the rule include Frito-Lay, See’s Candies, Kroger and the Cheesecake Factory.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from steelmaking, cement manufacturing and other parts of industrial sector is notoriously difficult. But among industrial categories, food and beverage is “one of the ones with the most promise for advancing electrification and zero emissions,” Martinez said.

But as any good chef would say, baking requires precision.

Consider the tortilla chip. Mark Schieldge, chief operating officer of Snak-King, a snack food maker based in the City of Industry, Calif., says it is challenging to bake them without gas. He has yet to find an electric oven for sale that gets the texture and crisp right.

“We’re working with other equipment suppliers to determine whether they think it’s possible,” Schieldge said.

And getting rid of gas ovens involves more than just installing an electric one. Factories will need to be rewired to handle the higher voltage. “It’s not as easy as just simply unplugging one oven and plugging something else into the wall.” Zvaners said.

Taking into account that feedback, the new rule gives more latitude to types of commercial cooking for which electric ovens are not commercially available yet, such as tortilla makers and nut roasters. Zvaners called the final rule “a reasonable approach.”

But the air agency expects new industrial-scale electric ovens to hit the market in the coming years, and is planning to tighten its regulations in response.

“When you think of residential ovens, for example, you already have electric easily available,” Rees said. On the commercial side, she added, “we think that that will be more and more available over time.”