Sun, wind, water, green hydrogen and biomass are all sources of clean, sustainable energy, more commonly referred to as renewables.
When combined with smart technologies, these naturally regenerating sources have the potential to create more energy than the world needs and, unlike energy derived from fossil fuels, they significantly reduce emissions and last for generations to come.
In 2015, as one of the first members of global energy initiative RE100, we committed as a business to sourcing 100% renewable electricity for our operations. We also set a target to reach 100% renewable energy (all electricity and heat) by 2030.
Today, 86% of all the electricity we use globally is from renewable sources – covering what we buy from the grid in the markets where we operate and what we also generate ourselves. Over a third of our thermal energy (heat) is from renewables too.
This is delivering multiple benefits. It’s making our business more resilient to rising energy costs and has been the biggest driver in reducing our operational emissions by 64% since 2015.
Change is not without its challenges
When you are a global business consuming energy at 245 sites in more than 70 countries, ensuring that all your electricity and heat is from renewables does not come without challenges.
Not all countries or even states within countries offer the same access to renewable electricity. And while new technologies such as heat pumps and concentrated solar power have the potential to provide up to half our thermal energy needs, many are not yet commercially viable or widely available.
And we’re doing so not just to drive towards our own 2030 target but to reduce market barriers to global uptake.
Five ways we’re moving forward with clean energy solutions
Purchasing from local renewables suppliers
We want to support renewable energy generation in the areas in which we operate and so where we can, we source renewable electricity from local markets. This takes the form of contracts called power purchase agreements (PPAs) and green electricity tariffs. “We favour suppliers with solid strategies to increase their renewable electricity supply base and recently built assets, such as wind farms, that are directly increasing local capacity,” explains Andrea Rickert-Pulvermann, who leads our renewable electricity approach.
Where we can’t do this, we buy openly traded certificates linked to renewable electricity generation called renewable energy certificates (RECs), to match our grid power demand.
Increasing self-generation and storage on site
To improve and secure access to renewable electricity, we are also generating some of our own supplies on-site.
We have added capacity from solar installations through third-party suppliers and our own investments at over 40 locations in 18 countries, such as at the pictured site in South Africa. Many installations cover 10–30% of a site’s annual electricity demand.
This makes business sense. In India, for example, we estimate that solar installations at six of our factories across four different states will generate savings in the region of €4.9 million over 15 years.
And there are plans for battery storage devices too, allowing us to expand our installations, store electricity during the day and use it at night in our manufacturing.
Piloting new solutions to drive efficiencies
We need heat to produce most of our products, to cool them before packing. An example here would be ice cream. Until now, this low-grade heat has been released via cooling towers because it is of no use in other manufacturing processes.
This is changing, thanks to our group engineer for thermal energy, Vivek Nesarikar. He and his team have been piloting the use of heat pumps which capture low-temperature, low-grade heat and increase it to 65–80⁰C, which is the normal operating temperature for most of our factory processes.
This means heat that used to be wasted can be used again and again. “It is a clean technology solution in the truest sense,” says Vivek. In Unilever Hindustan, utility executive Kothiya Jaydeep (pictured) and his team are using heat pumps to heat water, thus eliminating diesel use in hot water generators. And in our ice cream factories, such as our site in Cikarang in Indonesia, heat pumps can potentially offset heat requirements and reduce CO₂ emissions by up to 70%.
Setting principles to source biofuels sustainably
While it’s our priority to replace the natural gas boilers in our factories with low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps, biofuels from biological materials such as agricultural waste and organic municipal waste can also help supply our thermal energy. But our aim is to limit their use and ensure the biofuels we use don’t lead to further deforestation and provide clear greenhouse gas savings across the entire lifecycle.
We have defined a set of that see us use biofuels sustainably. Unilever primarily uses them as a transition fuel for thermal energy. In exceptional cases, we may use biofuels in combined heat and power (CHP) plants where electricity grid supplies are not stable, or their carbon intensity is lower than that of the local grid.
We are also working to source local supplies, not use materials if they can be put to a more circular use and ensure our use of biofuels will not distort local food prices. In Sri Lanka where tea is one of the country’s most popular beverages, we put spent tea leaves to good use as biomass, powering our factories in Horana and Agarapathana.
Using our influence for good
Accelerating the world’s transition to clean energy cannot be achieved in silo. For Unilever, this means making choices that activate broader changes.
Our engagement with utilities in the US to demand renewable energy supplies resulted in one of the most coal-reliant of energy providers developing its Renewable Solution Program. This helped to bring clean energy to Missouri.
And we’re keeping up pressure on governments. As one of the first members of RE100, we’re helping to signal demand for renewable electricity globally. And as a principal partner at the COP26 global climate conference, we signed up to US State Department’s Clean Energy Demand Initiative, to encourage countries to support corporate renewable procurement.
“Renewable energy will remain high on our agenda for COP27,” says Rebecca Marmot, our Chief Sustainability Officer. “It will take businesses, governments and all parts of society to accelerate action to tackle climate change – and Unilever is as committed as ever.”