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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

New California rule will cut carbon from baking Cheetos, chips and more

Commercial food manufacturers use a lot of fossil gas. A first-of-its-kind rule in greater Los Angeles will start to change that in 2027.
By Maria Gallucci

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Two women wearing masks and hairnets work next to large trays with hundreds of small dough balls
Workers make flour tortillas at La Gloria Mexican Foods, one of the oldest tortilla factories in Los Angeles. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Baked bread, crispy tortilla chips, smoked sausages, roasted nuts — all of these finished foods tend to share at least one thing: They’re typically prepared in large commercial ovens that require immense amounts of heat. Most of the time, facilities make that heat by burning fossil gas, cooking up harmful emissions in the process.

Now, the movement to electrify nearly everything is coming to the Cheetos plants and cheesecake factories of Southern California and, potentially, to other parts of the country.

Last week, air-pollution regulators adopted a first-in-the-nation rule that aims to dramatically reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from hundreds of commercial food ovens in the South Coast district. The area includes large swaths of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and it’s home to top food manufacturers such as Bimbo Bakery, Frito-Lay and chip-maker Snak-King.

Starting in 2027, nearly 100 facilities operating a total of 218 ovens must meet a zero-emissions limit for NOx, a smog-forming and health-harming pollutant. In order to comply, virtually all companies will have to replace their gas-burning ovens with electric options. Although gas-free alternatives do exist, they aren’t yet commonly used in commercial bakeries or widely produced by U.S. equipment manufacturers.

Electrifying California’s 6,100 food and beverage facilities will eliminate a major source of gas demand in the state. In 2021, the sector accounted for over 38 percent of the industrial gas demand served by the utility SoCalGas, not including refineries, according to the latest California Gas Report.

Burning this fossil gas emits carbon dioxide, while the appliances themselves can leak unburned methane — a potent greenhouse gas — even when they’re not in use. 

A pie chart showing the breakdown of fossil gas use in Southern California
Industrial gas demand by business type, not including refineries, served by SoCalGas in 2021 (California Gas Report)

Food companies have argued that, given the fledgling status of the electric-oven market, they won’t be able to meet the deadline for complying with new regulations. But regulators and environmental groups say such measures are needed to push oven manufacturers to ramp up production of all-electric models — not just for bakeries in California but also in major snack-making states such as Illinois, Texas and New York.

Our hope is that we start to see these companies push zero-emission technology nationwide,” Adrian Martinez, a Los Angeles–based attorney for Earthjustice, told Canary Media.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) approved the new rule on August 4 in an 81 vote. It comes as cities and counties across the United States are increasingly taking action to restrict fossil gas use from cooking and heating equipment — particularly within the residential space. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Bay Area became one of the largest districts to push homes and buildings toward replacing gas-burning furnaces and water heaters with electrified appliances.

The district is targeting ovens as part of its broader efforts to eliminate harmful NOx pollution. The greater Los Angeles region suffers the most smog and has among the highest levels of fine particulate matter in the country, according to AQMD. Both pollutants can contribute to or exacerbate chronic health conditions like asthma and heart disease.

Food and beverage manufacturers in the district are already required to limit NOx pollution under existing regulations. Now, AQMD is moving to accelerate the deployment of cleaner technologies to make a bigger dent.

We need to drastically reduce NOx from all sources, which requires switching to zero-emission technologies across the region wherever and whenever feasible,” a spokesperson for AQMD said by email.

The AQMD’s measure is the nation’s first zero-emissions standard for an industrial source of stationary pollution. Stationary sources are responsible for one-fifth of the district’s total NOx emissions; the remaining 80 percent come from mobile sources such as trains, trucks and ships, which the district doesn’t have authority over. After commercial ovens, AQMD will next look to tackle emissions from power plants and home ovens.

Decarbonizing snacks is a difficult task 

While replacing a home’s gas oven with, say, an electric model is relatively straightforward to do — at least technically, if not politically — swapping out a commercial oven is a much more complicated proposition.

To start, there are several different types of industrial bakery ovens, which are used for varying functions and can involve anywhere from 12 to 181 individual burners within a single machine. The AQMD’s regulation applies to four oven categories in particular, including continuous tunnel ovens” that can bake 1,200 hamburger buns per minute, as well as ovens with infrared burners that can reach up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit to turn fresh tortillas into chips and taco shells.

Commercial bakeries do not all use the same ovens or vendors, and a one size fits all’ approach is not possible,” Rasma Zvaners, vice president of regulatory and technical services at the American Bakers Association, said by email. The trade group’s members operate 121 facilities across California.

Regulators identified a handful of zero-emissions oven units that are already operating in Southern California. One electric bread oven can process up to 87,600 pounds of dough per day, and two facilities have smokehouses with electric burners. Some companies are using electric coffee roasters, including models from the company Bellwether, but those are typically limited to small applications, not the 2,000-pounds-per-day load required by commercial roasters.

Babbco, WP Bakery Group and Coastline Equipment are among the oven suppliers that are already making all-electric models and hybrid gas-electric equipment. Companies say they’re seeing increased demand for such alternatives, particularly from European customers that are facing stricter emissions limits — as well as gas price shocks and supply disruptions as a result of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

Reduction of carbon footprint seemed to be on a lot of customers’ focus lists,” Clint Adams, vice president of sales and marketing for Babbco, told the trade magazine Baking & Snack after 2022’s International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas.

For oven-makers, a key challenge is delivering equipment that can produce the same taste, texture and appearance as their gas- or oil-burning counterparts. But making sure a Pringles chip stacks exactly the same way isn’t the only consideration for commercial bakeries. Installing an electric heating source can substantially boost a company’s power demand, leading to higher utility bills and potentially requiring costly, time-consuming upgrades to the factory’s electrical infrastructure and the surrounding grid.

Food manufacturers operating in Southern California previously expressed concerns that they wouldn’t be able to find the appropriate all-electric commercial ovens or make the necessary electrical upgrades in just a few years’ time.

In an April letter to AQMD, California-based Snak-King estimated that electrifying its tortilla chip ovens would increase the raw power demand at its facility from 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts — a 400 percent jump — and cost around $7 million to install transformers, hire more electricians and make other electricity-related upgrades, in addition to the expense of buying new electric ovens.

The agency’s own analysis of a commercial bakery facility found that replacing three gas ovens with electric models would boost average daily electricity consumption by 140 percent. However, AQMD also says that electric ovens are typically about 20 percent more efficient at using energy than fuel-burning units, which can significantly reduce fuel switching costs” for manufacturers.

The AQMD has vowed to work with food and beverage companies to help them comply with the zero-emissions standard, including by allowing additional compliance time for facilities that need to make extensive electrical upgrades. To avoid overtaxing the grid, the new rule is also limited to ovens with a rated heat input capacity of 3 million Btu per hour or below; larger ovens will likely have to comply at a later, unspecified date.

Zvaners of the American Bakers Association said the adopted rule is a reasonable regulatory approach as California transitions toward electric technology.”

Although the standard applies to fewer than 100 facilities today, commercial baking companies have said they’re worried that regulators in other California districts or in different states will be inclined to follow suit. For proponents like Earthjustice’s Martinez, that’s exactly what they’d like to see happen.

Hopefully, it’s the first of many of these regulations,” he said. This is the start of what’s going to be an effort to get the entire food and beverage manufacturing industry to zero emissions.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.