Beer as a source of renewable energy: it sounds like the kind of suggestion someone would make after they’ve had more than enough beer already. But, as it turns out, there’s power in beer. The power not only to fuel a night of drunken revelry, but also to fuel its very own production.
There’s been much talk about the potential of wind and solar power as sources of renewable energy, but no one thought to use beer. In truth, it’s not the beer itself providing the means for energy production, but rather the biomass left behind by the beer-brewing process that can be used as a form of biofuel.
Making “green beer”
Germany has a strong beer making tradition, so it should come as no surprise that German engineering has found the means to produce environmentally-friendly beer. The method arose out of concerns regarding the excess of spent grain; the residue of the malt and grain that are the primary ingredients of the brewing process.
Originally, these remnants could be shipped to nearby farmland and used as fertilizer or feed for livestock. But demand for cattle feed has dropped in Europe, while demand for beer remains as strong as ever. This, combined with stricter EU regulations regarding fertilizer, has resulted in increasing amounts of spent grain, and nowhere to send it.
By 2009, Wolfgang Bengel, technical director at German biomass company BMP Biomasse Projekt, had successfully devised methods to generate energy from the residue of rice and sugarcane production in China and Thailand. He believed that those same methods could be implemented to the benefit of breweries in Europe.
Thanks to a partnership between German biogas plant specialist INNOVAS, engineering company BISANZ, and Slovakian boiler-producer Adato, special combustion equipment was installed for the purpose of burning used grain to produce steam energy, which in turn powered the brewing process. According to Bengel, the breweries could recover over 50% of their energy costs by using the spent grain.
Beer brewing is an energy intensive process, requiring heat energy to boil the wort, then electrical energy to cool it for fermentation. Using spent grain as a source of fuel allows breweries to conserve energy and benefit the environment in several ways.
- It reduces leftover grain waste. According to Bengel, 100,000 tons of spent grain leaves only 2,000 tons or less of ash as a result of the process.
- It provides the brewery with a means to generate a large portion of its own energy.
- It eliminates the need to transport spent grain to nearby farmland, resulting in a reduction of carbon emissions that would have been generated by lorries traveling to and from the brewery.
Alaskan brewery powered by beer
A brewery in Alaska was encouraged to employ the same method in an effort to reduce its excess bio-waste. The problem is worse in Alaska than in Germany because of the lack of farms available to accept shipments of spent grain (only 680 throughout the state, as of 2011), and the cost of transporting the spent grain to the Contiguous United States where it could be sold was too exorbitant for the endeavor to be worthwhile.
A different approach was required. While spent grain was already being used as a co-fuel in some breweries, none of those breweries had attempted to use it as their sole source of energy. The Alaskan Brewing Company intended to do exactly that, and so had a $1.8 million furnace installed to burn the spent grain.
According to Brandon Smith, the company’s brewing operations and engineering manager, once the system is fully operational it will reduce their yearly energy costs by an estimated 70%. He believes the same method could be applied at larger breweries that still rely on selling their used grain to farmers.
It may not be the world-powering source of renewable energy people are hoping for. But it means your next St. Patrick’s day might be a whole lot greener.
Matthew Flax is no stranger to an ice cold glass of beer. His eco-conscience is thus happily appeased by the thought of beer doing some good for the environment.