By Kim Elena Ionescu
Almost eight years ago, a piece of trivia about boiled potatoes completely changed the way I prepared my coffee (not to mention a bunch of other foods). A colleague of mine approached me at the lunch table, and related having heard that heating the water to boil a potato required more energy than it took to transport the potato across a nation or even an ocean.
Stunned and intrigued, I hurried from the lunch table to my desk to search for information on the carbon footprint of potatoes. Some hours later, I emerged from my journey down the rabbit hole of energy efficiency with a commitment to measure the water I’d be using to brew coffee before putting the kettle on the stove, as opposed to half-filling (read: over-filling) the kettle as I had been accustomed to doing.
Since then, I’ve also been looking at coffee brewers, espresso machines, and water towers differently, especially during periods when their big hot water tanks are sitting idle. Are the boilers insulated? I wonder. Do baristas know they can turn the machines off at night, or have they been told by managers to leave the equipment running? Does anyone pay attention to or care about the energy consumption of one brewer model versus another?
I now know that someone does care, and that a lot more people will be paying attention pretty soon because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an Energy Star specification for commercial coffee brewers at the beginning of July. Most of you (85 percent, according to EPA estimates) will recognize the Energy Star label from the specifications they have developed for more than 70 products including refrigerators, dishwashers, and other home appliances, but even those that know the logo might not know what it means other than energy (and cost) savings. Energy Star, which is a program shared between the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy, has been around since 1992. In recent years the focus of the program has shifted from residential to commercial equipment including food service and IT. Though a coffee brewer in a commercial kitchen doesn’t use as much energy as, say, an oven, it’s a significant category due to the sheer number of coffee brewers in restaurants, coffee shops, institutions, gas stations, and so forth across the U. S.
And to be clear, this is a specification for commercial batch brewers, as opposed to single-cup brewers or espresso machines. Both of those categories are under discussion and espresso machine testing has begun, but make no mistake, this is an involved process: the commercial batch brewer spec has been in the works since 2013 when a series of public stakeholder meetings and feedback cycles began (for anyone who’s really geeky, you can find all the transcripts of meetings online). According to the EPA, manufacturers of commercial coffee brewers approached them regularly for years before the review process began. “We might have been a few years late,” admitted one of the team members who worked on the spec.
I am one of those consumers familiar with the Energy Star program, but until talking to the EPA about the brewer spec, I had never realized that the program works with companies, as opposed to, say, coming up with an ideal standard and then regulating the industry accordingly. A major advantage inherent in this system is that Energy Star recognizes the best options currently available (as defined by efficient use of energy without sacrificing performance) and involves industry stakeholders in the process. Therefore, spec development proceeds much more quickly than regulation. I have considered the counterargument, namely, that working with industry might lead to a compromise in the rigor of the standard to placate manufacturers, but as a consumer who cares about and is willing to spend money on energy efficiency use, Energy Star labels are incredibly useful, especially when facing choices that all look good and perform well. By providing consumers with information, Energy Star aims to drive consumer demand for energy-efficient appliances that will then serve as an incentive for more research and development into greater efficiency gains. While this is optimistic, it’s not unrealistic—that cycle of continuous improvement has repeated itself across categories over the program’s 24-year history.
The commercial batch brewer spec is the kind of sustainability story I most enjoy reporting on because it’s a true win-win, offering value to everyone involved. Brewer manufacturers receive recognition for their work to make high-performing equipment that operates efficiently, which (one hopes) will lead to increased sales. Meanwhile, restaurant and coffee shop owners and operators gain a tool to help them make informed choices about equipment that will save them money. And finally, all of us drink good coffee with a reduced carbon footprint. Now that the spec is published, Energy Star is accepting commercial batch brewers for testing on an ongoing basis (for what it’s worth, they also accept suggestions for new specifications to develop from anyone and everyone), and the EPA predicts that labeled brewers will be available this fall. Now—on to espresso machines!
Kim Elena Ionescu is the director of sustainability at SCAA, where she works on behalf of coffee-centric businesses and organizations both large and small, in the U.S. and beyond, to tackle the challenges coffee faces now and in the future.