Responsible consumption … of energy

The fourth installment in my Michigan Beer Guide series examines options for sustainable choices in brewing facility operations and the brewing process in general. This piece is reprinted with the permission of the Michigan Beer Guide. Cheers!

When it comes to running a successful business, breweries across the country are proving that being environmentally friendly and upholding the economic bottom line are the prefect complement. Specifically, striving to conserve energy and choosing energy sources that do not rely on fossil fuels are two practices that more and more US breweries are adopting, and reaping myriad benefits from, every year.

Just as the Western states were forerunners of the craft beer movement, they are now setting the bar high for the rest of the US in terms of running breweries that are energy efficient, or that rely on alternative energy sources.

For example, solar power is an ideal, sustainable source of energy that California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is pursuing with gusto. A large solar panel system over their parking lot combines with rooftop panels to provide nearly 40 percent of the brewery’s electrical needs. All together, the brewery’s panels represent one of the country’s largest private solar panel arrays.

Another California brewery turning to solar power is Stone Brewing Co., which recently invested in a large bank of solar panels that now blankets their facility. In Colorado, both Odell BC and New Belgium BC utilize solar power.

Yet the use of solar power isn’t limited to breweries in Western states. Just across Lake Michigan, a new solar water heating system enables Central Waters BC in Wisconsin to produce twice as much beer with no additional spending on natural gas. Purchased with the help of a state grant, the system will save the brewery an estimated $1.4 million over the next 30 years.

Although the expenditure may be recouped over months or years, the initial cost of solar panels can be prohibitive for smaller breweries. For many breweries, however, purchasing a share of their required energy from renewable sources may be a feasible option. For example, Roots Organic BC in Oregon purchases all the energy they need from renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

Wind power is a renewable energy source that some breweries are just beginning to explore, yet that others have relied on for years. Based on the standard of being “alternatively empowered,” New Belgium embraces environmentally-friendly practices across the board. And they’re not just following the trend, they’re proud to lead the way. New Belgium began purchasing electricity generated from wind power over a decade ago, and today is about 70 percent wind-powered.

On the East Coast, Brooklyn Brewery’s plant in Williamsburg, New York was the first building in New York City to be powered by 100 percent wind energy. Brooklyn Brewery estimates that each year, their use of wind power saves up to 335,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

In efforts to be more sustainable, breweries are exploring options for putting to good use what was formerly considered waste. Here in Michigan, Michigan BC generates power with biodiesel generators that run on fryer grease from Michigan State University cafeterias.

This innovation is the result of a partnering with MSU’s Bio-Refinery Training Facility, which produces the biodiesel and sends it to Michigan BC to be burned in their steam generator. While all this brewery’s beer is currently produced using biodiesel, plans are in the works to power the entire brewery with electrical generators that run on this fuel.

Utilizing anaerobic digestion to treat brewery wastewater and generate methane is becoming a popular method of promoting sustainability. Sierra Nevada uses their methane to generate electricity, thereby even producing surplus energy to divert to California’s power grid. This brewery is quickly closing in on their goal of running on 100 percent sustainable energy.

New Belgium is another brewery that collects methane from their wastewater, generating up to 15 percent of the power used by their facility in this manner.

Craft breweries may lead the way, but the big names of mass-produced beer are also beginning to jump on the alternative energy bandwagon. In 2009, Anheuser-Busch installed anaerobic digestion systems in 10 out of 12 of its US brewing facilities, including one in Columbus, Ohio and one near Syracuse, New York. Avoiding the costs of both treating wastewater and purchasing fossil fuels may be the economically-driven motives, but the result is a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Anheuser-Busch sends their recovered biogas to boilers for use in the brewing process, contributing up to 15 percent of the total fuel needs at a given plant. As Anheuser-Busch investigates utilizing local landfill gas, solar power and wind energy, a more eco-friendly face of this big brewer may continue to emerge.

Just as relying on sustainable energy sources is important, so is limiting energy demands to begin with. At New Belgium, motion-sensitive lights ensure that energy isn’t wasted, a closed-loop brew kettle reduces the consumption of natural gas, and the bikes given to employees on their one-year anniversary promote human-powered transportation.

Almost any brewery can embrace practices that promote decreased energy demands. These can just be little changes that add up over time. At Odell, for instance, skylights reduce the need for electric lighting, and the company encourages employees to bike to work or carpool. The use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, recycling heat from the brewing process, using outdoor air for cooling purposes when possible and maintaining an efficient refrigeration system are just a few examples of what breweries large and small can do to reduce energy requirements.

“There’s really not just ‘one thing’ that businesses need to do to be sustainable,” emphasizes Rochester Mills Beer Co. owner Mike Plesz. “There are so many different ways to weave sustainability into a brewery.” Plesz is the CEO of Pleszure Food Group, a “sustainably practicing business” which encompasses Rochester Mills; Mind Body and Spirits, Michigan’s first certified organic restaurant; artisan cookie and snack bakery Inspired Treats; and a related school that educates youth about the importance of sustainability.

Plesz advises that breweries undergo an energy audit to pinpoint areas where energy is currently squandered. “Brewers are ingenious! They have engineering minds, and once they begin to think about this, they can come up with so many ways to reduce energy use and support long-term sustainability.”

Companies closely related to the brewing industry are also following the trend to go green. Last year, Briess Malt & Ingredients Co. received a U.S. Department of Energy award for achieving significant energy reductions. Briess, a name well-known by most brewers, manufactures specialty malt, natural sweeteners and more for the brewing and food industries. Reusing waste heat for space heating and initiating new operating procedures for producing roasted malts are among the measures that contributed to a 20 percent reduction of energy usage and CO2 emissions.

As a group, the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association is committed to using biofuels and hybrid vehicles when possible, and Michigan distributors are reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by investing in energy efficient light bulbs and coolers, and by taking advantage of new building materials and designs.

Running a facility itself isn’t the only area that demands fuel. To transport in masses of brewing ingredients and transport out the resulting brew, large trucks are still the standard across the country. Yet today, trucks don’t necessarily need to run on diesel or gasoline. Stone, Odell, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Rochester Mills all have delivery trucks that run on biodiesel, a biodegradable fuel that results in a 78.5 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as compared to petroleum diesel.

Dedicated to their mission to “Take, Make, Remake,” Ohio’s Great Lakes BC strives toward their goal of completely sustainable production in many ways, even running their delivery trucks on straight restaurant vegetable oil.

Great Lakes operates both a modified semi truck for beer delivery and a shuttle bus (affectionate named The Fatty Wagon) that run on this fuel, some of which comes from their own brewpub. According to a press release, since the semi only burns diesel to begin and end each trip, just two gallons of diesel are needed for one 100-gallon trip on the vegetable oil. The straight vegetable oil isn’t subjected to the chemical process required for making biodiesel, so it’s more cost effective and it burns cleaner.

In the world of brewing, the options for reducing reliance upon fossil fuels, from choosing wind power or solar energy to recycling heat to using energy-efficient light fixtures, are just the beginning. And, the breweries listed here are only a very small sampling of all the breweries across the country that are making a commitment to sustainable energy.

“The fact is that breweries demand a lot of energy,” concludes Plesz. “So in the end, financial and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.” Craft brewers have always been innovators, and the craft brewing industry promises to blaze the trail toward responsible energy use, one brewery at a time.

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