Where Do You Get All That Energy?

Wind and solar power installations, hydrogen fuel cells and potential thermodynamic sources are helping craft brewers protect the environment and deal with the energy crunch

by Jack Curtin
Fall 2006

Craft brewers have, in general, shown a concern and respect for the environment from the beginning. Much of that concern has, of necessity, been manifested at basic levels, such as the almost-everybody-does-it gift of spent grain to local farmers (what did those guys feed their pigs before local breweries began springing up anyway?), but in the 21st century environmental efforts are increasingly focused on the larger, more expensive issue of the energy needed to run the brewery. Donating spent grain to feed livestock is both ecologically sound and economical beneficial (no cost for having it removed), and so too are investments in such capabilities as cogeneration or regeneration technology and power sources.

Whether the choice is a hydrogen fuel cell installation or changing to wind or solar rather than fossil fuel sources, breweries have come to the conclusion that, in addition to answering the environmental imperative, alternative energy will probably save them money in the long run. "The volatility of energy costs within the last four years kind of woke everybody up," says Pete Gregson of Advance Power, Calpella, Cal., whose company recently installed a major solar array for Anderson Valley Brewing Co. "Energy used to be a relatively fixed cost, but now people are paranoid that their bills could double overnight. Plus, some utilities are trying to change the rules of the game. For example, California has just revamped 'time of use' billing, which is a time-of-day specification, and some utilities companies want the PUC to mandate that everybody has to go 'time of use.' That would mean paying three times as much per kilowatt during peak power periods, which is the period when virtually every business is functioning at full speed. These days, any business which sees an opportunity to get off the grid and become energy independent to a significant degree has to look at it long and hard."

Various incentives and rebates have become available from the federal and state governments and many public utilities, making energy alternatives more economically feasible at breweries around the country. Here's a look at what some of them are doing, from one of the largest fuel cell installations in the world in Chico, Cal. to a one-man band in Pittsburgh; from 8,000 feet above sea level in the High Sierras to the lowlands of the Anderson Valley, from the liberal streets of Brooklyn to the more conservative ones of Salt Lake City.

But first, there's this brewery in Colorado…

It is a sine qua non that any piece on sound environmental and energy performance in the brewing industry must at least touching on the efforts of New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, So: * wind power for all electricity used has been employed there since November 1999 (a water treatment plant which captures methane helps in that regard), * the fully automated 200bbl brewery is built around a Steineker Merlin wort boiling system which reportedly reduces fuel requirements by up to 65-75 percent, * a $21.5 million capital expansion announced earlier this year for a new brewery and additional packaging equipment will include, among other eco-friendly components, a heating/ventilation/cooling system which used a direct-indirect evaporation cooling tower rather than Freon.

New Belgium remains the only brewery and one of the few businesses to have a Sustainability Specialist on the payroll; Nicholas Theisin, who took over the post this summer, says that "we are currently looking into and considering solar power as part of our mix."

Fuel Cells: Neat But Expensive?
The largest, and surely most impressive, energy-saving installation of recent vintage was marked by the July 25, 2005 ceremony at Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, attended by dignitaries including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which officially dedicated the brewery's new one-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell power plant. The 250-kilowatt cells were manufactured by FuelCell Energy, Inc. and installed by its distribution partner, Alliance Power. They now supply nearly all of the brewery's base load power requirements. Waste heat is harvested in the form of steam and used for the brewing process as well as other heating needs. Even with a $2.4 million rebate from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and $1 million from the Dept. of Defense), the project cost the brewery in the $2 million range; Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman says it will pay for itself in ten years, resulting 15 years of free electricity, based on the expected 25-year cell lifespan.

It almost didn't happen. In 2004, Grossman was thisclose to adding a new natural gas co-generation unit to his plant. "I had looked at distributed power generation and onsite generation a while back," he recalls, "plus all the technologies-cogeneration turbines, reciprocating engine cogeneration units and fuel cells. I thought fuel cell technology was neat but I wasn't quite ready and it was very expensive, so I started down path of installing a large cogeneration unit running on natural gas with heat recovery off of that. Fuel cells still intrigued me, though, so on the last day, with the contract for the cogeneration unit in front of me, I called the vendors I'd talked to originally and said I would sign it unless somebody could offer a proposal that would be cost effective enough to be competitive. Alliance Power said 'give us a week' and came up with something that fit the parameters." In addition to lowering Sierra Nevada's overall energy costs, the cells also significantly reduce air pollutant emissions, Grossman says, and that was a major factor in his decision.

"We're a small, lean and mean company," says Brian Moreau, a registered professional engineer with Alliance, which is headquartered in Littleton, Col. "We're all engineers, without a lot of management overhead. Sierra Nevada was the largest fuel cell project we had done up to that time and the largest such installation in California." This past July, Sierra Nevada called on Alliance again, commissioning an add-on module that will enable them to blend in recovered methane gas from brewery waste as an energy source. "They've been using natural gas but we always intended to incorporate digester gas when they were ready," Moreau explained. "We've done several straight digester gas applications at waste water treatment plants, but they're not quite as attractive as a brewery because the methane content there is only 60% as opposed to 80% in brewing. The brewing industry is a really nice fit for us."

The Sun Shines Bright…
Down the road a bit, Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville recently completed an $860,000 solar project, installing a 592-panel array on the roof of the brewery's cellar and packaging facility and a freestanding 176-panel ground array. Again, federal, state and PG&E grants played a major role in making the installation possible. "Our energy bills were increasing dramatically, explains Rod DeWitt, who is responsible for brewery operations and process control, stressing that who you purchase solar power can have a significant bearing on the final price. "We had a lot of guys in matching polo shirts and Mercedes from Marin County tag-teaming us with proposals and it was pretty confusing, but then we eventually found a great vendor in Advance Power. Pete Gregson taught us what we needed to know and worked with us every step of the way. He and his guys came in, did the job and have never come back, except for periodic checkups…and to pick up some beer."

(For Gregson's advice on how to approach purchasing solar energy, see accompanying sidebar.)
The arrays produce "about 45% of our daily energy needs," says DeWitt, also pointing out an unexpected side benefit. "An incidental perk is that our building has 35 f00t ceilings and when those solar panels absorb all that heat, the ambient temperature inside drops almost 20 degrees, which means that all our fermentation and cellaring vessels are that much cooler, which also reduces energy demand." He noted that AVBC also uses windmills to aerate its ponds, a heat exchanger to reclaim water for additional uses and is working on ways to recover secondary steam off the brewing vessel.

Harness the Wind
When Uinta Brewing in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is named for a nearby mountain range and was founded by Will Hammill in 1993, opened its new 26,000 square foot, 40bbl plant in 2001, it was 100 percent wind powered. "We were talking about building and ideas about using renewable energy kept coming up," Hammill recalls. "Eventually, we became part of the Utah Power Blue Sky Program, which allows us to purchase renewable energy from a wind farm in southern Wyoming. Now they're planning to build a commercial wind farm right here in Utah, which will be even better." Says Sarah Wright of Utah Clean Energy, which runs the Blue Sky program, "we love the opportunity to partner with companies like Uinta to show that you can have an environmentally sustainable an economical viable business."

Economically viable it is, agrees Hammill. "If you want to just look at the bottom line, it initially cost us about 50% more for our energy, but that's changed with time. The more people you get interested, the more businesses and local communities who sign up for renewal energy, the more the price drops. Today our energy needs cost us only 20% or so more than would standard fossil fuel. Besides, it all comes down to ideology. If we all ran our businesses solely about the bottom line, how would anything ever change? Being responsible and minimizing our impact on the environment is our primary goal, including placing windows in the brewery to maximize light and minimize heat and putting a white roof on the building to reflect heat rather than absorb it. Those little things add up."

Founder Steve Hindy and Brooklyn Brewing received considerable publicity in September 2003 when the brewery became the first major company in New York City to go 100% wind power. "We had approached by Community Energy, an upstate marketer of power from upstate wind farms, early that year. They viewed us as a high-profile, progressive company that would be good example for others. We liked the idea, but found it would increase our costs fairly significantly, around 10-15%, so we kinda let it lie. Then in August, we had a major blackout in the Northeast and were without power for a little more than 24 hours. We didn't lose any beer, but it was close. We decided to make the switch. We realized that wouldn't have saved us in that instance since it comes through Con Edison delivery system, but we felt the move would make a statement about our belief in renewable energy. Since then, a lot of other companies have switched and some big buildings have gone to some percentage wind power."

The move turned out to be a great customer relations step, Hindy adds. "It really rang a bell with consumers. We received hundreds of emails expressing support for what we did. In fact we still get them, including one this morning, almost a year later. We'll be doing more in this area in the future, especially with a new brewery we're looking to build down by the waterfront. When that happens, we'll employ both solar and wind power and use an anaerobic digester to handle our waste."

Geothermal: a 24/7 Power Source
If off-the-grid as much as possible is the ideal, then Sam Walker, who is building a new plant for his ten year old Mammoth Brewery in California's Mammoth Lakes, a ski resort in the High Sierras near Yosemite, accepts the challenge. Walker put himself right on the line last summer when he told a town meeting that "I have become completely intrigued by the whole alternative energy thing. I am hoping to make the brewery the first completely off-the-grid brewery in the world and use it as an educational and demonstration project. I got especially interested when I learned that cold climates like ours are even better for tapping solar energy than warmer climates, and we certainly have the sun, let alone the geothermal resources." In our interview later, Walker explained the latter. "We're sitting on top of a very large pool of geothermal energy here that comes from old volcanic action. Mammoth has an incredible combination of potential resources-geothermal, solar and wind power-and we intend to employ all three."

Walker, a 40-year resident who owned two local watering holes before starting his brewery, is one of the driving forces behind the High Sierra Energy Foundation, a group which is working to make Mammoth Lakes a showcase for energy efficient programs. Foundation Executive Director Rick Phelps thinks geothermal is a great option. "There's already a power plant in town that takes some of that and generates electricity," he says, "and we intend to take some of it and provide it for heat. Sam is working hard to make his new brewery have the flexibility to also take advantage of it. As opposed to solar and wind, geothermal is a base load resource, meaning you can use it 24/7. That's a significant advantage."

All those examples are major-and expensive-projects, but even the smallest of the small are looking for ways to go beyond just the basics of good environmental behavior. "Being small allows me to more easily look at my operation holistically," says Scott Smith, founder and sole employee of the 10bbl East End Brewery in Pittsburgh. "I can't afford anything truly high tech, but I've managed to make this close to a `Zero Solid Waste' operation-just one kitchen-sized bag of trash goes to the curb each month. I've also begun exploring the possibilities of a solar water heater project with a local university down the road a bit." Then Smith tells a story which seems very much to the point of the whole business of energy conservation and renewal. "When I was a home brewer making five gallons at a time, I used to tell people that my goal was to put more good beer into the world than I took out of it. And, in spite of some deep beer debt incurred in my college days, I think I've managed that."

Put more back in than you take out. That's pretty good energy policy right there.


You Are My Sunshine

Tips on Using Solar Power

Pete Gregson of California's Advance Power Co. offers some guidelines for anyone who is, or plans to be, in the market for a solar energy installation:

Know now to evaluate a system. "There are two different standards used to measure the efficiency and output of a solar array. You cannot accurately evaluate proposals unless all providers are using the same one. Standard Test Conditions (STC) are based on a flash test that manufacturers of solar panels conduct in the factory under controlled conditions; Practical Test Conditions (PTC) are based on performance out in the field under varying circumstances. There can be as much as a 40% difference in output and a considerable difference in cost between the two. PTC ratings are the ones on which government and utility rebates are based."

Choose the right system. "Solar systems consist of several solar panels arranged in a series string to create a certain voltage. These strings are placed in parallel depending on how much wattage or kilo-wattage is needed. What many people, including some of the people who sell this equipment, don't always realize is that the size of the string is absolutely critical. For example, a ten-panel unit is a low voltage string and a 16-panel one is a high voltage string. High voltage is always much, much better. It starts sooner in the morning, runs later in the evening, works better in overcast conditions or in partial shading or clouding. Also, solar systems have a natural degradation rate of one percent annually. If you start off with a low voltage series string, that will catch up with you pretty quick. As the system ages or you get into inclement weather, you can start having some production issues."

Keep the system flexible. "One of the vulnerabilities we all have in business nowadays is that it is extremely difficult to project into the future any more. Nobody can look ahead and be sure what new technologies will be developed or which existing technologies might be significantly improved. Whatever you install should be capable of taking advantage of whatever might be coming down the road to the greatest degree possible."

Insist on specifics from a vendor. "Our approach is that we don't want any money upfront. The last thing I want is for any potential customer to be cautious about calling us with questions and issues, especially in the initial phase, because they're worried it will cost them. There is important information that the vendor should provide before you make any commitment: the estimated cost of the project, whether you have the square footage to install the proposed system and whether there are local code or engineering issues or potential problems with the utility company. It's not prudent to sign any sort of contract until you have that information."

Remember: a deal is not always a deal. "There are big Wall Street conglomerates buying up solar panels and looking for places to put them in order to garner the recently approved five-year depreciation rate and the federal income tax credits so they can offset portions of their portfolios which are more profitable. They will offer a 20-year contract at a reduced price, as much as 20% under the existing utility rate, and guarantee that they will maintain the system. It sounds great for a company with a tight budget, but the reality is, if you can find a way to do it, you could own the same system outright and have it paid for in five years."

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

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