Online Exclusives
March / April 2020

Sustainability: Toward Zero Carbon in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Andrew B. Gibson
Sustainability: Toward Zero Carbon in the Pharmaceutical Industry

We have some clarity over the desired end point of zero carbon within the next 30 years (or sooner for some pharma companies), but our industry is uncertain how we will achieve this objective. As pharma engineers, we will all play a role in delivering this end point through the continuous improvement of existing facilities and by designing, equipping, and building new facilities that will be operating in 2050. The zero-carbon scenario requires us to make radical changes while simultaneously improving supply chain quality and resilience.

The continuous greening (decarbonization) of electrical grids is already changing our perception of what our priorities should be as we plot the roadmap to zero carbon. For example, in many locations, the use of cogeneration, which was once seen as a major carbon-reduction strategy, can now be defined as having zero or negative carbon benefit, depending on the location and accounting methodology used.

The challenge of setting priorities is particularly evident if we consider the purchase of “green electricity” contracts as an effective carbon-reduction strategy resulting in zero-emission grid power. We know that in a future where we have a 100% renewable grid, the use of (for example) electric vehicles and heat pumps will be genuinely green. But is now the right time to design all of our facilities for this outcome, especially if relatively cheap fuel prices today drive the economics in a different direction? Or does the adoption of these technologies and the additional electrical demand these will make on the system, move the end point further away? To this end, some recent definitions of net-zero carbon propose limiting the use of offsets to only fully optimized energy users.

Industry Innovations

Examples of energy-efficiency success stories can be found throughout our industry. One pharmaceutical company has adopted heat recovery from chillers (a subset of “heat pumps”) as a standard for all new designs. This has improved vendor offerings and designer understanding in this technology, while benefiting those who have not yet tested this approach.

A ground source heat pump provides most of the heating and cooling requirement for a modern lab facility in Freiburg, Germany. Integrated into the building design are very small temperature differences (dTs) for heating and cooling circuits with state-of-the-art fume hood concepts.

These innovations are possible with standard technology available today. We can specify our HVAC to be prepared for low-dT retrofit in future, even if we continue to use steam to temper ambient air in the meantime. A clear priority is to reduce energy waste and inefficiency in our core pharmaceutical processes; otherwise, our utility plant requirements are unnecessarily larger and more expensive to optimize later.

Engineering Challenges

As we undertake this “decarbonization” process of designing for a future with a “100% green grid,” the lack of clear timetables for the various breakpoints challenges all pharmaceutical engineers. Even when we achieve a green grid, there will be no “magic bullet” for zero carbon because pharma companies will remain significant users of heat and other energy-intensive products. Process intensification, continuous processing, and modular containment technologies promise to deliver future facilities that will consume less energy but remain complex. Vendors supplying equipment for these facilities need clear guidance (user requirement specifications) on the specific needs of the facility to achieve optimized equipment designs—and providing this specification requires a strategic vision for the site.

A strategic site decarbonization plan should be specific in defining opportunities and future performance expectations while leaving flexibility to respond to changes in the operating environment, utility pricing, and legislative frameworks. Plus, we need to recognize that our knowledge of energy-use patterns may improve with increased metering and analytics. A site-specific decarbonization plan should also define the energy engineering specification for new builds at the site, including any technologies to build on a pilot scale for capability building.

In Europe, ecodesign regulations1 help us move toward the zero-carbon end point, with HVAC heat recovery now compulsory and fan, chiller, and boiler efficiency requirements driving rapid incremental improvements in new pharma building efficiencies. Figure 1 shows an example of solar power used in HVAC operations for a German site.

Figure 1: Solar collectors delivering hot air to a pharma HVAC dehumidification wheel in Germany. Photo courtesy of Axel Kleuch, Pfizer.

Solar collectors

The strategy for engineers dealing with existing facilities is clear: to deliver cost-effective reductions in energy use that align with business goals. Opportunities for significant energy reduction range from applying Lean methodologies to our processes through to upgrading, redesigning, and optimizing existing systems.

Many types of engineers are engaged in these efforts. Lean engineers achieve significant improvements in carbon intensity by delivering more output from more effectively utilized assets. Process and HVAC engineers achieve significant improvements through better integration of technology into operating systems and better definition and understanding of user requirements. Maintenance engineers play a significant role in maintaining energy performance and identifying opportunities for upgrade during replacement. Project engineers working on the upgrading and reconfiguration of aging facilities are required to make multiple strategic choices with regard to energy opportunity and effective use of assets.

Tools We Can Use

Coordinating and communicating these priorities will require us all to develop new tools and language. Better information on energy use, wider communication of good practices and case studies, and training to develop and refresh our knowledge need to be reinforced with good processes. Two key resources of interest to all pharma engineers are the ISO 50001 standard for energy management2 and the energy-efficient design (EED) process established in Ireland Standard (IS) 399.3

ISO 50001 defines the management and organizational processes for operating a facility in an energy-efficient way, including the use of meter data to drive intelligent decision-making and the support to deliver real improvements. Thus, ISO 50001 provides a language to help align discussion around energy use and should be a catalyst for defining improvements in how we deploy metering and data analytics, and additional concepts such as ”significant energy users” and ”energy performance indicators.”

Figure 2: Sankey diagram for an aseptic facility in Australia highlighting HVAC as the most significant energy user at just over 50%. Conventional lighting consumes 5% of energy, and the most significant process users are clean steam and water for injection (WFI). Reproduced with permission of EECO2.

Sankey diagram

The excellent Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM)4 and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)5 rating programs should be followed when designing and constructing any type of commercial facility. However, design of a pharma manufacturing process involves challenges that are not satisfactorily covered by those systems. The energy-efficient design process developed for Sustainable Energy Ireland, piloted 10 years ago as IS 399,3 goes a long way to fill pharma-specific design needs. It is now in widespread use in Ireland and spreading to other countries as an industry best practice. When the IS 399 process is used, stakeholders create an energy-opportunity register early in the design of a facility; this register focuses on the core processing requirements (often HVAC, as shown in Figure 2) and defines the roles and responsibilities of parties for evaluating, developing, and prioritizing energy-efficient design strategies. The energy-efficient design process is facilitated by an external expert, who provides the significant user analysis and validates the energy model. Multiple case studies testify to the process’s effectiveness in delivering cost-effective steps to change energy and water use. See Figure 3 for an example of an award-winning design applying Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and energy-efficient design principles in China.6

Figure 3: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design plus an energy-efficient design review resulted in a wide range of energy-efficient features in the 2018 Facility of the Year Award (FOYA) Sustainability Award–winning project in China. Used with permission of courtesy of Paul Chiu, Pfizer.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design plus an energy-efficient design


The challenge of reaching zero carbon is coming into focus, and any engineer with the bandwidth to develop the breadth of technical know-how needed to clarify, evaluate, and implement energy-efficient strategies will be in a good position to add value in the years ahead. For those who are starting this journey, I encourage you to explore the excellent technical content presented and evaluated in the Association of Energy Engineers certified energy manager course7 along with the pharma-specific knowledge contained in the ISPE Handbook: Sustainability.8  The most pressing need is for clear communication of user sustainability requirements to designers and suppliers of the new facilities that will be the energy users of the future.