Whisky and the Environment

Whisky and the Environment

The seeking of a sustainable strategy

Production | 30 Jan 2015 | Issue 125 | By Ted Bruning

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Energetic business, distilling. Not necessarily in the sense of big sweaty blokes hauling sacks of malt about, but in the sense of bringing five billion litres of wort up to mashing temperature, holding it there while the sugars are extracted, cooling it down to pitching temperature, then heating it up again in the still, then... you get the picture. So you can see why cleaner, cheaper energy is a priority.

And then, too, 90 per cent of the water and all of the grain used in the process ends up as waste. And since it made sense to site the factory near the raw materials, many distilleries were built in isolated glens; so all of the fuel (except the peat, where applicable) has to be shipped in and all the product has to be shipped out.

Simple waste reduction measures such as feeding spent grain ('draff') to livestock and using the protein-rich pot ale left over after distillation as soil conditioner have long been the norm. But tentative efforts at mitigating the waste of energy started only in wartime, when Deanston was converted to hydroelectric power. In the 1970s Glengarioch briefly used its waste heat to warm greenhouses (as seen on Tomorrow's World, no less!), while since 1990 Bowmore's waste heat has made a tropical spa of the swimming-pool in the community-owned Mactaggart Leisure Centre sited in a former warehouse at the distillery gates.

But it took the slowly-unfolding emergency of climate change to trigger a co-ordinated attack on energy consumption and waste; the industry made its first Climate Change Agreement with the UK Government in 1999. Then in 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association, with the support of both UK and Scottish governments, launched its own environmental strategy, a shopping-list of targets it describes as "the most ambitious voluntary sustainability strategy of any manufacturing sector." Since then the pace of change has accelerated.

By 2012, the industry had cut its CO2 emissions by 10 per cent on their 2008 levels, despite an 11 per cent increase in production. Meanwhile its energy consumption had grown by little more than 1 per cent, and the proportion of energy derived from non-fossil sources had increased from 3 per cent to 16 per cent. The proportion of packaging waste sent to landfill fell from 13 per cent to 5 per cent; and although the amount of cullet available for the manufacture of bottles actually fell, more and more recycled material went into packaging.

The pace has been kept up since 2012. Perhaps the biggest engineering project has been the laying of a new gas-main in Speyside, allowing many distilleries to switch from heavy oil to a fuel which, while still fossil-derived, is a good deal cleaner-burning. But perhaps more significant for the longer term has been the replacement during 2013-14 of oil-burning boilers with woodchip-fired combined heat and power generators at Tomatin, Aberfeldy, Balmenach, and Royal Brackla.

The installations were carried out by Balcas, a timber products multinational that started as a sawmill in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. In 2004 it diversified into wood-fired CHPs and in 2008 opened a new plant at Invergordon. The foundation of the Government-backed Green Investment Bank in 2012 meant finance was available for distillery companies to buy into renewables, and the four installations currently up and running are reducing their combined CO2 emissions by around 20,000 tonnes a year - the equivalent of taking 6,000 cars off the road.

Even more convenient combustible materials than wood pellets, though, are draff and pot ale. The draff can be dried and burnt; the solids in pot ale can be separated out and anaerobically digested to produce biogas. These materials can either power CHP units for individual distilleries or be used to generate electricity for sale to the national grid - the £30M plant opened in 2013 at Rothes by a consortium including Diageo, Chivas Brothers, Inver House, Edrington Group, Glen Grant and Benriach generates 7MW and saves 47,000 tonnes in CO2 emissions a year. While Diageo's brand-new £40M distillery at Roseisle includes a biomass plant that generates 8.6MW of its annual demand of 10.2MW and as a bonus pumps its waste hot water to the maltings on the site.

All this doesn't come cheap, though. The Baclas wood-pellet CHP at Aberfeldy cost £5M, and even an apparently simple change - using a bigger proportion of recycled material in its gift cartons - involved Edrington Group and its suppliers in two whole years of research and experiment. So what's driving the industry to invest so heavily in becoming greener?

The obvious answer is that it all saves money. Energy efficiency equals cost efficiency, says John Whetstone, UK business development manager of Italian-based Green Engineering. And, he adds, fear of energy shortages in the not-too-distant future is an added incentive for distilleries to become as self-sufficient as possible.

But to attribute the huge level of activity in the industry in recent years purely to self-interest is too cynical. SWA spokeswoman Rosemary Gallagher says: "Scotch whisky industry is synonymous with the pristine Scottish environment. Few products are as closely associated with their environment as Scotch: distillers rely on nature for their raw materials, so sustainability is a priority." And she can point to many schemes such as Speyburn's sponsorship of the Spey Foundation's creation of fish passes in burns blocked by culverts and road-bridges, which allow salmon and sea trout to return to their ancient breeding-grounds, as evidence of the industry's longstanding involvement in the countryside.

John Whetstone, as an independent observer of the industry, agrees that altruism plays its part in its focus on environmental concerns. "Perhaps because so many distilleries are in such stunning locations, perhaps because tourism is such an important part of the business, the Scotch whisky industry is much more environmentally conscious than many others," he says.

Paradoxically, though, while the big corporations make great environmental strides the new-wave small artisanal distillers find themselves lagging behind. The reason is simple: cost.

It's early days, though. If the history of the microbrewing boom is any precedent, then given time the industry's engineering suppliers will realise that there's a market for scaled-down models of their equipment that artisan distilleries can afford, and every dram you raise will be truly green.
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