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Energy efficiency and sustainability placed at the top of the menu

Home Manufacturing & Processing Food & Beverage Energy efficiency and sustainability placed at the top of the menu

PRICE increases in food and non-alcoholic beverages contributed to a 4% increase in the Producer Price Index (PPI) in January 2024, putting even more pressure on this sector to tighten its belt rather than push up prices at till points. This is according to Dennis Williams, commercial director of Associated Energy Services (AES), a leading operations and maintenance service provider to the South African steam and boiler sector.

As one of the country’s largest thermal energy users, Williams believes food and beverage producers need an energy management ally to reduce input costs while also addressing their specific requirements.

This sector uses thermal energy for a multitude of processes – from spray drying coffee creamers to heating raw materials ahead of processing. One manufacturer may use steam for cooking and canning vegetables – and another, such as the dairy industry, uses it for pasteurising. Steam also assists with temperature control of workspaces and ‘clean-in-place’ (CIP) processes to meet stringent health and safety standards.

“Thermal energy usage usually exceeds electricity requirements by two or three times. Except during loadshedding, electricity is there whenever needed. Thermal energy must be converted into a usable format on site which is where AES comes in,” Williams explains.

Serving up solutions

AES is responsible for the whole chain of control, from selection of the right fuel to generating and delivering steam to the processing plant.

Proper planning of a reticulation system is crucial, so design and operational inefficiencies and limitations must be addressed in partnership with clients.

“We do thermal imaging and then discuss whether or not steam traps are functioning correctly. We also make recommendations about other production-related challenges such as reticulation dead-ends. Strategic input includes conducting a high-level energy audit which can provide very high-level and positive cost impacts,” he continues.

AES’s success stories in the food and beverage sector include taking over operations at one site for a large fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) – which was struggling with overall energy efficiency due to a lack of technical expertise – specifically as a pilot case study.

“We guaranteed an improvement in the operating efficiency in the boiler house and a reduction in the use of heavy furnace oil. We put one of our own boilers on the site to bolster their capacity, installed further capacity to support their production, took over management of and trained their staff and implemented AES’s operating practices and management systems,” Williams recalls.

The end result was a 21% drop in fuel consumption and a significant reduction in the facility’s carbon footprint.

AES also operated a second – and larger – site for the same company. “There, we delivered a 35% reduction in the cost of fuel. Over the years, that has enabled us to expand our footprint within the company to five sites where we have reconfigured steam generation facilities, introduced changes to fuel and ash handling systems, addressed health and safety issues and improved general reliability,” says Williams.

‘Greening’ the food industry

Cost is not the only pressure on the food sector. Sustainability is now as important as price – and consumers tend to support brands that are prepared to reduce their energy usage and carbon footprints.

Sustainability is also increasingly important for food and beverage companies – particularly multinationals operating locally. Priorities include the reduction of emissions and waste, selecting environmentally friendly or ‘green’ fuels like biomass or natural gas and water-saving.

Presented with the challenge by a multi-national frozen foods manufacturer, which had committed to reducing the carbon footprint at its South African facilities, AES assisted with the conversion planning for one plant to more eco-friendly natural gas.

“Our involvement extended from specification of a suitable boiler for the gas burner systems, site location and reticulation of the gas pipeline to engaging with gas vendors regarding price and availability of fuel,” Williams says.

An ongoing project at a much larger sister plant included identifying a sustainable and cost-effective biomass solution. The AES team travelled to Europe and South America, reviewing over 15 fuel and technology options before delivering risk and fuel supply assessments and creating a preliminary roll-out plan.

Saving water is another ‘greener’ option for food processors. Williams points out that managing condensate, an inevitable by-product, is “the low hanging fruit”. This can be added to any make-up water returned to the boilers, ultimately reducing water, fuel and chemical consumption for treatment purposes.

These improvements apply to both high-tech plants and older facilities which require a new approach.“AES’s role is to help optimise expansions and improvements to existing food and beverage production processes.

We look forward to developing synergistic partnerships where we can assist food and beverage sector companies to be more energy- and cost-efficient, competitive and environmentally friendly”.

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