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AB InBev invests in solar thermal energy to meet ambitious sustainability goals

2021-09-21

Brewery giant Anheuser-Busch InBev has partnered up with Absolicon and its South African partner GreenLine Africa to install an approximately 10,000 m2 solar thermal energy plant at a brewery in Maputo, Mozambique. The system, once complete, will reduce the brewery’s fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 40% with the aid of an innovative energy storage solution.

Working towards ambitious climate goals

Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) is the world’s largest brewery group with almost 200 breweries around the globe and over 500 beer brands in its portfolio. The group has a strong dedication to sustainability and has set ambitious goals for transforming its energy use. By 2025 the company will have a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions if compared to 2017 and 100% of the purchased electricity will be from renewable sources.

To support this change, AB InBev has initiated the 100+ Accelerator program. Through this initiative, the group supports the scaling up of innovative sustainability solutions developed by smaller companies and start-ups. The program has been a success and The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have recently joined as partners.

GreenLine Africa, Absolicon’s partner in South Africa, was accepted to the 100+ program in 2020 and was granted funds for a pilot plant. The initial idea was that the pilot would provide heat for a bottle washing station in AB InBev’s brewery in Maputo, Mozambique. But during the development of the project, AB InBev decided to skip the pilot stage and go for a full-scale system that will provide heat for several different parts of the brewery.

Solar thermal energy – an efficient solution for heat generation

Michael Beck is Global Director, Energy & Fluids at AB InBev and responsible for the utility departments at the group’s breweries.

“My job has close ties to the group’s sustainability goals since our department provides heating and cooling in our plants. These are energy-intensive processes and, to cut our CO2 emissions, we need to develop and implement new solutions,” says Michael Beck. “Around 70% of the energy that we use is heat. This makes solar thermal energy a perfect fit for us. We get free heat from the sun and use it directly without first converting it to electricity, resulting in high efficiency in cost and space.”

Daniel Lynn is Director, Global Technical Operations, Energy & Fluids at AB InBev and has taken the lead on the group’s solar thermal energy initiatives. He explains the group is assessing the possibilities to use Absolicon’s technology in several places in the world.

“We are looking at solar thermal energy from a global standpoint and we see opportunities for savings in all the locations we are currently evaluating. We have chosen to install our first solar thermal energy plant in our brewery in Maputo, Mozambique due to the high local energy prices and diesel footprint. Once the system is fully commissioned, we expect to see a 40% cut in the brewery’s consumption of fossil fuel,” Daniel Lynn explains.

A full-scale plant was the best investment

Early in the process, the team from AB InBev met with companies that already operated solar thermal energy systems from Absolicon to hear their views. They also evaluated the performance of Absolicon’s demonstration units and assessed that the technology did not need any further proving in a pilot plant. Consequently, they decided to skip the pilot stage and install a full-scale system straight away.

“We are believers in the Absolicon’s technology, and we realized that if we increased the investment a little, the positive impact on the plant would be much greater. It made sense to make the extra investment,” says Daniel Lynn.

Even if sustainability is a core issue for AB InBev, investments in sustainability projects must compete for funding with all other projects in the group.

“We will not do a project without good payback, regardless of whether it has a sustainability angle or not. At AB InBev all projects compete on equal terms, meaning we always expect good returns on our investments,” says Michael Beck. “The Maputo project is a good example. Here we expect a substantial cut in fuel spending as well as in CO2 emissions.”

A good partnership

The team at AB InBev is happy to cooperate with Absolicon and GreenLine Africa.

“We are impressed by their knowledge and flexibility. We appreciate their responsiveness to changes and view them as partners in designing the optimum solution for our brewery,” says Daniel Lynn.

At the moment, the project is in the engineering phase. The installation will be carried out in stages. The total solar collector area is planned to be about 10,000 m2.

Supplying heat to the brewery

The initial plan was to utilize the heat from the solar thermal energy system at the Maputo brewery in the so-called brewhouse area. This is where wort is prepared in a series of steps before it is fermented into beer. Boiling is the final stage of the brewing process, and thereafter the wort is cooled in a heat exchanger before entering the fermentation tank.

To conserve energy, the heated cooling water from the heat exchanger is stored in a large tank before being used as make-up water for the next brew.

The solar thermal energy would be fed to the hot water tank, thereby reducing the need for heating the tank using steam.

After multiple design iterations by AB InBev and the team at Absolicon, an optimum solution was finalized. The solution enables heat to be supplied to all users in the brewhouse and the packaging hall. About 30% of the brewery’s total thermal demand will come directly from the concentrated solar plant and an additional 10% from an energy storage.

“We challenged Absolicon to develop an energy storage solution that can act as a ‘thermal battery’ and supply energy even after the sun sets. The storage is comprised of 21 water tanks, connected in parallel, each with a volume of 30,000 liters.  The water will be charged with heat during the day and discharged during the night,” says Daniel Lynn.  “An attractive feature of the system is that it is modular, meaning the capacity of the solar thermal energy system and the energy storage system can easily be increased should the need arise in the future.”

Alternative implementations

The AB InBev team is discussing alternative ways of implementing solar thermal energy at other breweries. 

In a brewery in the Canary Islands, solar energy will potentially be used for generating steam, which will be injected directly into the main steam header, after the boilers. This will reduce the load on the boilers, allowing them to be turned down during daylight hours.

A third design, which is planned to be used in a brewery in the US, is to use solar energy to preheat boiler feedwater.

There are many different applications for solar thermal energy in a brewery, and the heat can either be used directly in individual pieces of equipment or be supplied to a central energy system.

“Most breweries have a central boiler house with one or more large main boilers. To maximize the use of a solar thermal energy system, the generated heat should be used for supporting these boilers, either by generating steam or by preheating feedwater. If you just use the energy in one part of your process, you may find that you cannot make use of all the solar energy the system provides,” says Daniel Lynn.

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