Got a headache from all the recent back and forth over rhetoric and politics of climate change? Last week, Frito-Lay served up a refreshingly rhetoric-free reminder that the future is coming no matter what we might do to encourage (or stop) it. Under their net zero initiative, the salty snack behemoth will be taking an Arizona potato chip factory almost entirely off the grid, running it on renewable energy and recycled water.

The project stands out to me mostly for what it is not:

Net zero is not a demonstration project for showy or questionable new technologies. In fact, the plans rely for the most part on defiantly unsexy technologies: solar concentrators, which are sort of the Jan Brady of the solar energy world; methane digesters, a technology that predates World War II; waste heat collection, an efficiency measure that Bill McKibben lamented the obscurity of just as Sean Casten was raising half a billion dollars to fund such projects. Etc.

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Net zero is not a tiny showcase project. The Arizona plant is medium-sized by industrial food production standards, which means that a mere half million pounds of potatoes wend through its system of robot fryotronics per day. If the project is successful, elements will be rolled out to Frito-Lay’s other 37 plants. While this is exactly the type of industrial system that likely horrifies environmentalists for a score of other reasons, we can safely assume that potato chips aren’t going away any time soon.

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Net zero is not an environmental feel-good initiative. Although Frito-Lay does plan on milking the PR value of the project (as they have every right to), the article is refreshingly free of save-the-world-through-better-snack-food rhetoric. Here’s David Haft, Frito-Lay’s group vice president for sustainability and productivity: “We said, ‘This might not make a hell of a lot of sense initially, but long term this is where we need to go.'”

Right. The retrofit will be complete by 2010, and will cut 50 to 75 percent of the plant’s greenhouse-gas emissions. I’m not sure exactly where such projects fall on the spectrum of the politics-of-possibility to the politics-of-taking-away-everyone’s-toys. I do know that Frito-Lay estimates the costs of the project at only slightly above what they would have paid anyway over the next 25 years, and that’s using a conservative model that doesn’t factor in oil at $100 a barrel.

I wonder, does their model factor in a price for carbon? There’s an idea. Maybe if we put a price on carbon emissions, businesses would respond to those incentives …

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