An almost green factory: the Pfizer case

By Naglis Navakas (Verslo žinios)

Over the past 15 years, the plant owned by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Freiburg, Germany, has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 91 per cent. The company emphasises that investment in renewable energy sources (RES) and energy efficiency is a natural part of the automation process.

“We can only be competitive in Europe if we automate production. This means that we have a lot of robotic equipment that needs energy,” says Michael Manfred Becker, director of the Pfizer Manufacturing Deutschland GmbH Freiburg plant, of the focus on energy consumption.

The facility produces 6 billion tablets and capsules per year. The energy saving solutions that have been implemented allow the company to save 1.23 GWh of energy per year, and prevent 750 tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The company saves the most energy (1.15 GWh) by conserving heat.

Biomass makes it possible to purchase gas for less

The company produces steam in a 4.8 MW biomass boiler, but is also able to burn natural gas. “We used to only use gas for heating, but now we can negotiate better gas tariffs,” he points out. The 400 m3 pellet silos installed at the factory site can store enough fuel supplies for the facility to operate for 10–15 days. The biomass silos work without an operator: the sensors mounted in the repository automatically notify the biomass supplier when to start keeping track of stock, and the supplier replenishes it on his own.

“This system is great for the supplier, who might not always have sufficient capacity to deliver the biomass, but by being warned in advance can plan supply frequency accordingly,” asserts the manager. Natural gas is needed when there is a sharp increase in energy demand and the biomass boiler is no longer sufficient, or vice versa – when there is a sharp decrease in demand. “The biomass boiler operates effectively at a load of 20–100 per cent. If the load drops below one-fifth, we burn gas that produces steam more efficiently,” explains Mr Becker.

Solar and geothermal energy

“We have learned that in every production optimisation project, you have to try to include as much RES as possible. It’s hard to save a lot just by installing solar cells. However, if solar plants, heat pumps, LED lighting and other measures are included in production optimisation processes, there are a lot of benefits” states Mr Becker.

For heating premises and producing electricity, the company uses solar panels installed on the roofs of the facility. The company sells surplus power by supplying it to the electrical grid. Other solar cells which heat air in pipes help to maintain the strict climate control required for production. “This system was developed with the help of students from the University of Freiburg and is not available on the market,” assures the production manager. Named STAR-1 and STAR-2, the systems help to ensure the right air conditions in the laboratories and new automated production facilities. The administrative building is heated and cooled by geothermal energy.

Unused energy is equally important

“We are not only looking at how to produce energy from renewable energy sources, but also how to introduce manufacturing processes that use less energy. The best way not to pollute the environment is not to replace energy sources with renewables, but to not use them at all,” says the plant manager.

A 2.2 MW absorption heat pump is used to heat the premises. This pump collects waste heat in summer from the manufacturing processes and steam production that escapes through the ventilation ducts. “We are installing heat recovery systems throughout the entire production chain, and this allows us to recover 78 per cent of the heat released,” says Mr Becker.

Ventilation at the laboratories in the plant is also controlled automatically. If there is no one on the premises and no work is being done, the air change rate is reduced from the standard 20 times per hour to 5. When work is being done with non-toxic products, the air change rate is increased to 10, and it only reaches 20 times per hour when work is being done with important, toxic substances. This ventilation system makes it possible to save 30 per cent of the circulating air and the energy needed for the process.

All of the heating, steam and other energy systems at the plant are controlled by an automated system that gives priority to the most efficient equipment, and only turns on the less efficient ones when there is an increase in demand. “It is very important for the company to know where energy is being used. When you don’t know how much energy you’re using and where, it’s hard to improve the processes,”  the manager emphasises.

According to the manager, optimisation of the production process is directly related to energy waste – the less unnecessary material that is processed and the less losses that are incurred during the production process, the less energy that is wasted. “Each kilogram of material that is lost means energy that is used to no avail, and each minute spent working too long is also energy. This was the reason we introduced new continuous production technology,”  the manager assures.

An investment of EUR 50 million was needed for fully automated capsule and tablet production, but the manager is confident that not all energy efficiency solutions require large injections of money. “All equipment and all buildings can be improved and made efficient,” claims Mr Becker, giving the biomass boiler burners and the company’s administrative building as an example. They have been improved and maintained since 1964.

Green culture

“Everyone talks about green solutions in Freiburg,” says Mr Becker about the city where his company operates. According to him, this helps the company implement various energy-saving solutions. The company’s green policy is not limited to manufacturing buildings. The vehicles used at the factory are electric, and the employees are encouraged to cycle to work in summer – and, according to the manager, nearly half of them do. Nevertheless, the green company’s strategy begins at the top level. Management must first take the lead and show by example. “Investing in green technology depends on management’s attitude. Pfizer’s green strategy was conceived by senior management, which has begun applying this strategy in production,”  the manager assures.

Original article in Lithuanian