Swiss multinational Nestlé began replacing its CFC and HCFC systems with natural refrigerants in 1986. Today, its commitment to adopting natural refrigerants for HVAC&R applications wherever possible is helping to bring the technology to new parts of the world – thanks to the vision of Vincent Grass and his predecessors. Accelerate Europe reports from Nestlé’s hometown of Vevey.
From industrial refrigeration systems with NH3/CO2 at key production sites in Switzerland to ammonia-cooled data centres and the worldwide deployment of hydrocarbons-based display cabinets, the commitment of Nestlé to natural refrigerants is consistent and firm.
Vincent Grass is a man with a vision as far-reaching as the lofty Alpine summits that tower above him on his daily commute, alongside Lake Geneva from his home in Evian, in nearby France. As refrigeration team leader in the ‘corporate operations – engineering services’ department at Nestlé, the 40-year-old Frenchman is responsible for turning the company’s ambition to expand its use of natural refrigerants into a reality.
“We are expanding the use of natural refrigerants across the company,” Grass says.
Natural refrigerants have long played a central role in delivering Nestlé’s corporate sustainability targets. Since 1992, Nestlé has invested CHF 299 million (EUR 276 million) in replacing HFC systems with natural refrigerant-based alternatives for industrial refrigeration. It installed 47 new industrial refrigeration systems based on natural refrigerants in 2016 alone.
Reducing industrial refrigeration footprint
The majority of Nestlé’s refrigerant consumption by charge is attributable to industrial applications.
About 90% of Nestlé’s refrigerant charge – and potential risk in terms of direct refrigerant emissions – is in manufacturing. Commercial applications account for the remaining 10%.
“We’re focusing on industrial because that’s where we can make the biggest impact. It’s where we have the biggest risk of leakage and the highest electricity consumption,” says Grass.
“For most big plants, ammonia is the most efficient option. In combination with CO2, you can address safety issues and still deliver low temperatures. By adding CO2, you need more components but the compressors are smaller, so you’re reducing your footprint too,” he argues.
Nestlé is already using natural refrigerants for over 90% of its industrial refrigeration needs worldwide. In the Europe, Middle East and North Africa (EMENA) region, 91% of its industrial refrigeration is provided by natural refrigerants. In the Americas – Nestlé’s biggest market is the USA – the figure is 95%. “In Asia, Oceania and the rest of Africa, we’re at 84%,” Grass says.
“We are expanding the use of natural refrigerants across the company.”Vincent Grass, Nestlé
A succession of world firsts
Nestlé’s natural refrigerants journey begins in 1986 – three years ahead of the entry into force of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1989 – when the company began to replace CFCs and HCFCs with ammonia. “At that time, we focused our efforts on our biggest plants, deciding to move from CFCs directly to ammonia. Later, we extended our use of natural refrigerants to the replacement of HFCs in smaller systems,” Grass says.
In 2000, Nestlé turned to natural refrigerant CO2 for the first time. At a factory in Beauvais, France, it replaced 15 tons of CFC R13 installed in the 1970s with an ammonia/CO2 cascade system in which the CO2 circulates without compression. “This was a renaissance of CO2. It had been used at the turn of the century, but for over 50 years it had not been used at all,” Grass says.
In 2001, Nestlé opened the world’s first large NH3/CO2 cascade system to use compressed CO2, built in cooperation with Star Refrigeration. It replaced an R22 system at Nestlé’s coffee factory in Hayes, UK.
“The valves for CO2 did not exist at that time. HERL was a valve manufacturer in Germany back then, and they developed the valves for us,” says Grass.
New milestones have steadily been reached. In 2005, Nestlé commissioned its first chillers using hydrocarbons as the refrigerant (R290), in a confectionery factory converted to natural refrigerants in York, UK. “We couldn’t hook everything up to the same system, so this is where we started to use hydrocarbon chillers – using water or glycol for the end uses,” Grass says.
In 2006, Nestlé installed the world’s first CO2 ice cream freezer, in its factory in Bangchan, Thailand. “When you manufacture ice cream in a factory, you use a freezer in which you start to freeze the mixture. In 2006, this equipment did not exist for CO2. We worked with suppliers to develop the first one,” Grass says.
All Nestlé’s new ice-cream freezers now use hydrocarbons, either propane or isobutane. “We see good efficiency with hydrocarbons compared to HFCs. It’s a significant difference,” says Grass.
Nestlé first used a hydrocarbon-based ice-cream chest freezer in 2011. Since 2014, all the company’s new ice-cream chest freezers in Europe have been HFC-free. This policy was extended worldwide in 2015. Since 2016, all its new ice-cream chest, upright and island freezers have used natural refrigerants worldwide.
Grass is optimistic about what the future holds. “When I was on the supplier side, I had to sell units. It was heart-breaking trying to sell solutions that you’re convinced are the future, and then seeing your client take the short-term solution. Unfortunately this kind of decision-making often shifts towards the short-term approach.”
“This job gives me an opportunity, as a human being, to take action. And so, I decided to join. Now I’m on the customer side, and I can make change happen. In the seven years I’ve been here, we’ve done a lot. I’ve had a lot of fun. And we still have a lot to do.”
The future of Nestlé would appear to be in good hands.