The results from the study concluded that although there are suitable electric ovens available – even with all 42T’s recommended energy savings and other operational cost reductions factored in – they would still make the baking process significantly more expensive because of the price difference between electricity and gas.
The case for making the switch
The industrial bakery sector in the UK currently uses natural gas-fired ovens to produce biscuits at an acceptable price, with the flavour, texture and appearance that consumers enjoy.
The downside is the cost to the environment. By transitioning to electrification, it has been estimated that Burton’s could see a potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 12,000t CO2e per year (the approximate equivalent of removing 500 cars from the road), with a further opportunity to bring sister company Fox’s Biscuits and potentially other businesses owned by Ferrero on board.
Burton’s Biscuits and Fox’s Biscuits united in March 2022 to form a new biscuits company - Fox’s Burton’s Companies (FBC) UK. The business operates under a Ferrero-related company following the acquisition of Fox’s Biscuits in 2020 and Burton’s Biscuits in 2021.
However, the current landscape means electricity is substantially more expensive per kWh than natural gas, so making a switch without any efficiency improvements would not be commercially viable.
While the cost of both natural gas and electricity in the UK is extremely volatile and difficult to forecast future rates, the ratio between the cost of natural gas and electricity varies in the range 3.9 to 2.9. To achieve parity with current gas costs, the oven would need an energy saving between 74% to 66%, which is at the upper end of the predicted maximum reduction in energy consumption of 75%.
The legacy fleet of gas fired ovens and variation in key parameters means that oven design and operation often rely on expert knowledge, especially how the oven is run and tuned in response to different ingredient batches and external environmental conditions.
Factors such as amount of moisture in the flour or the homogeneity of the mix can affect the necessary baking parameters to achieve an acceptable product. This means the oven of the future will need to have some flexibility in the baking conditions to adapt to the changing inputs from earlier in the process.
Different technologies would need to be applied to each part of the baking process to produce a more efficient system, along with better equipment design and insulation to minimise loss. Total energy requirements would need to be minimised, not only for resource efficiency but also to mitigate against the higher costs of electricity over gas, future electricity grid constraints and further electrical infrastructure investments.
As such, the study had to consider both technical and commercial aspects of fuel switching to ensure product quality, costs and throughput could be maintained or improved.
Decarbonising the UK power system
A landmark commitment to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system by 2035 was announced by former PM Boris Johnson in 2021, focused on building a secure, home-grown energy sector that reduces reliance on fossil fuels and exposure to volatile global wholesale energy prices.
However, given the uncertainty over the availability, cost and timing of green hydrogen, electrification is likely the most viable route to de-carbonisation. The move is even supported by the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), which estimates that direct-fired ovens used within the UK’s F&B sector contribute around 700,000 tonnes CO2e per year.
Funded through the UK government’s Phase 1 Industrial Fuel Switching Competition designed to help accelerate the transition to cleaner fuels, the report details:
- characterising the thermal and humidity profile of a current gas-fired industrial baking line;
- mapping the energy losses within the current process to identify potential savings;
- investigating commercially available electric ovens to replicate the existing baking process.
- 42T also developed a process to assess and reconfigure other production lines relying on electrical heating technologies.
The full report is also available for free download from the Departments for Energy Security and Net Zero, and for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to encourage other oven-based industries - ceramics, composites and paper - to follow suit.
FBC UK estimates it could potentially reduce their annual greenhouse gas emissions by up to 17,000 tonnes CO2e by decarbonising their production lines.
While 42T’s report showed that maintaining product properties and costs could be challenging in the switch to electrification, on a technical level it is feasible. As such, the next phase in Burton’s journey is will be to demonstrate the performance of a high-efficiency electric oven in full production conditions by 2025.
Cambridge-based 42 Technology (42T) was founded in 1998 and has established a reputation for helping clients to solve complex technical problems and develop successful products. Its team offers a diverse range of skillsets that includes ethnographic research and usability engineering, product and system design, device testing and regulatory compliance.