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Targeting sustainability and energy efficiency

13 October 2019

As food businesses gear up for significant changes to refrigerant legislation which comes into force on 1 January 2020, the opportunity to do more than just comply should not be ignored, says Robert Unsworth

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UK food companies are advised to replace refrigerants that have Global Warming Potential (GWP) of above 2500 as they will be banned under the European F-Gas legislation in certain static refrigeration applications. 

Reclaimed and re-processed refrigerant can continue to be used for servicing of existing equipment until 2030 but is likely to become costly and in short supply (as seen already and previously experienced with the phase out of r22). Despite massive price increases with these refrigerants, some food companies have been applying a misplaced logic that continuing to top up an old system is cheaper than replacing it in full. However, the time for prevarication is almost past.

It is also a good time for food manufacturers, processors and cold storage facilities – in fact, any food business – to take the opportunity not only to replace their refrigeration systems, but to reassess their entire processes and look for other ways to help reduce emissions, improve energy efficiency and meet sustainability targets.

The chill factor
Most cooling systems using greenhouse gases will have to be replaced with those that can handle natural refrigerants, such as ammonia – an environmentally-friendly refrigerant that has no impact on global warming or ozone depletion – to comply with the legislation which is set to be applied worldwide. Food companies need to take action sooner rather than later as time is running out to install the new natural refrigerant based systems and it is not possible in the vast majority of cases to retrofit an F-gas system with a natural gas, especially ammonia.

GEA has already installed a large ammonia-based system for a major food manufacturer and retailer incorporating mechanical and absorption cooling, helping to deliver one of the most energy-efficient frozen food distribution centres in Europe. Usually in a food storage environment up to 90% of energy use is for refrigeration; while this operation has a cooling capacity equivalent to 12,000 domestic chest freezers, the facility only consumes less than a third of the power used by the two cold stores it is replacing when comparing size. What’s more, water and chemical consumption has been reduced by 86% with the annual water saving equivalent to 11 Olympic sized swimming pools.  

Maximising energy efficiency
The ammonia absorber in the plant rejects its heat into a common condensing system, which enables recovery for both underfloor heating and defrost. This considerably reduces other associated waste streams, such as cooling tower water, chemicals, effluent, fan and pump power. Heat is also recovered for underfloor heating by subcooling ammonia which not only provides free heat but actually improves the compressor efficiency to boot.

Refrigeration plants and cold stores can offer huge potential for not just reducing emissions but making a positive contribution to sustainability. Food factories generally use steam to cook food products before cooling them down, so it makes perfect sense to extract and harvest that heat via a heat pump, rather than relying on a boiler. 

A heat pump is a far more eco-friendly and profitable solution than traditional heating alternatives. Industry, local authorities and homeowners have been using them for heating applications for many years – and food factories are now starting to see the financial and environmental benefits of using heat pumps in production processes, especially those that require the application of heat during preparation and subsequent chilling.

With recent studies estimating that the UK produces around 16million tonnes of food waste every year and a large proportion of this comes from manufacturing, which in turn is blamed for the production of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and potential leachate pollution.

In the coming years GEA predicts that more food companies will start to take advantage of innovative and effective technologies in waste management, such as anaerobic digestion. This is an advanced method of handling waste food based on micro-organisms, which generates renewable energy and produces a quality soil improver. It also brings significant environmental benefits by diverting a large quantity of waste from landfill and generating a methane-rich ‘biogas’ used as renewable energy.

Cooling may be in the spotlight currently, but food processors have nothing to lose and everything to gain from adopting complimentary technologies to further reduce running costs and CO2 emissions – and ultimately to help reach their sustainability targets.

Robert Unsworth is head of sales (Refrigeration) for GEA UK.

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