Heat is heat, whether it’s -40 or +140 Celsius. Wasting it leads not only to wasted money, but also increases the carbon footprint of many industrial processes, especially where both heating and cooling are required. Energy-efficient heat pumps are rapidly becoming the technology of choice in the drive for a carbon-neutral future. This technology is helping industry and cities alike meet ever-stricter environmental regulations, achieve their own sustainability targets and reduce operating costs.

Climate change is a pressing issue globally. This was made very clear at the historic 2015 climate summit which resulted in the Paris Agreement, a global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit temperature rise to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius. The European Union has now established a European Green Deal and has committed itself to leading the world on climate action, and more importantly, setting clear targets. This includes the aim of halving its emissions by 2030 and becoming a net-zero carbon zone by 2050.

The challenge is not a small one, given that according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), heat accounts for more than half of global total final energy consumption, most of which is produced from fossil fuels. Therefore, heat decarbonization needs to be greatly accelerated if these ambitious targets are to be met. The EU is also phasing out fluorinated gases, commonly used as refrigerants, in accordance with the European F-Gas regulation which was established to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The combination of increased legislation, technological advances and their own desire to reduce their environmental impact, is creating the necessary momentum for manufacturers to connect their business strategy to their decarbonization strategy. Food manufacturers who committed early on to reducing their emissions, for example, are already reaping significant financial and environmental benefits as a result of integrating heat pumps into their production processes; this is particularly the case in factories that require the application of heat during preparation and subsequently for chilling.

Industry’s hidden champion: The heat pump

Mars chocolate production facility
GEA heat pump installation, Mars chocolate production facility, Veghel, the Netherlands. This customized solution uses GEA piston compressors which allow for the extraction and boosting of otherwise unusable low-temperature heat from the refrigeration units for reuse in heating water. (Photo source: RCC K&L)

With applications in both B2B and B2C, the heat pump has come a long way since it was first used to dry salt mined from Austrian marshes in the 1850s. Already well known for use in district heating and the residential sector, heat pumps are quickly becoming the technology of choice for manufacturers scrambling to meet ever-stricter environmental rules, reduce CO2emissions as well as operational costs.

Heat pumps convert renewable or waste energy from buildings and processes to provide heating. For example: During cooling, refrigeration systems emit heat from a condenser, which is simply released into the environment. The heat pump captures this valuable resource and then boosts the temperature to produce heat suitable for other production purposes.

When a heat pump is combined with a refrigeration unit, both cooling and heating are possible, turning one-time use into a continuous cycle, lowering energy costs by 30 percent or more. That’s a significant saving when you consider that within the food, dairy and beverage industries, up to 60 percent of energy usage is attributed to heating and cooling.

Reducing CO2 and refrigerant emissions

As fluorinated gases are phased out, natural refrigerants are becoming more popular, especially ammonia, an environmentally-friendly refrigerant which is readily available, inexpensive and has no impact on global warming or ozone depletion.

Ammonia is used extensively in food processing plants, in the beverage and dairy industries, as well as in breweries and cold stores. Thanks to improvements in compressor technology, ammonia heat pumps can now produce higher temperatures. This has paved the way for their more widespread use in the food, beverage and dairy industries, where waste heat can be reused and boosted for washing, cleaning and drying products; heating water for cleaning and processing purposes, as well as pasteurization.

Traditionally, these industries used boilers to cook or pasteurize products, which were then refrigerated to cool them down again, resulting in massive energy waste, since the heat from the refrigeration process was too low in temperature to be reused. A heat pump, however, can boost the waste heat temperature up to 90 Celsius so that it can be put back into circulation. This means that more fossil fuel boilers can be retired, heat can be regenerated or recycled, and CO2 emissions greatly reduced – by as much as 50 percent or more in many cases. Moreover, these CO2 emissions can be reduced to zero if green electricity is utilized.

Customized solutions provide giant leap forward for food industry

“GEA’s industrial heat pumps range from 300 kW to 10,000 kW, which means we can handle just about any application from hot wash-down water to city-wide district heating,” explains Kenneth Hoffmann, Product Manager Heat Pumps, GEA Refrigeration Technologies. “But every application is different and requires a tailored approach. We have the advantage of being able to combine extensive process knowledge and expertise in integrated heating and cooling solutions. We design everything in such a way that the heat source remains stable and permanently available, so that the use of waste heat can be optimized.”

Traditional installations with gas boilers are normally designed for a much higher heat carrier temperature than actually required in the process; this leads to inaccurate heat load calculations and therefore unnecessary energy waste. While the integration of a heat pump system requires a comprehensive analysis of the required temperatures and an assessment of the right process parameters, the more accurate the initial design, the more energy can be saved – therefore every degree counts. Rather than using small pipes with a significant temperature difference to keep the initial cost down, a heat pump investment is based on continuous savings, every day.

Every application is different and requires a tailored approach. We have the advantage of being able to combine extensive process knowledge and expertise in integrated heating and cooling solutions.” - Kenneth Hoffmann, Product Manager Heat Pumps, GEA Refrigeration Technologies

“We have excellent relationships, sometimes spanning decades, with our processing customers. Many of these came about because of a refrigeration installation we delivered; that’s really where our roots and expertise lie,” says Maarten Gelens, Refrigeration Expert, GEA Refrigeration Technologies, the Netherlands. Robert Unsworth, Technical Sales Director GEA Refrigeration Technologies UK, adds: “Working with our customers, we strive to achieve their sustainability goals which includes realizing energy savings and reducing their CO2 emissions. The application of heat pumps in the food, dairy and beverage sectors is going to be the biggest leap forward that food production and refrigeration has ever seen.”

Business growth and sustainability: two sides of the same coin

To meet sustainability goals the IEA has stated that the share of clean energy technologies, such as heat pumps and solar thermal heating, needs to triple to more than one quarter of new heating equipment sales by 2030. Heat pump technology delivers energy and cost-savings regardless of the industry in which it is used or the extent to which it is utilized. It can do basic jobs, like heating and cooling a small suburban home, right up to taking a central role in a super smart, zero-emissions strategy for district heating or in a large food production plant. GEA also helps manufacturers look at their plants holistically, by analyzing each process to identify opportunities for increasing efficiency and cost-savings. This approach or offering, which we call GEA Sustainable Energy Solutions (SEnS), often includes the integration of a heat pump to capture and reuse waste heat, which can be found in abundance in many production environments.

The application of heat pumps in the food, dairy and beverage sectors is going to be the biggest leap forward that food production and refrigeration has ever seen.” - Robert Unsworth, Technical Sales Director GEA Refrigeration Technologies UK

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