Drink to the future: California brewery sets an example

In a small town in Northern California, a craft brewery is making waves in the energy world. The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. sits at the north end of the Sacramento Valley in the small town of Chico and in the last 27 years it has emerged not only as a top notch brewery, but as a leading example of sustainable industry. By Cheri Chastain.

The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (SNBC) believes that its mission of producing the finest quality beers and ales can be accomplished without compromising its role as a good corporate citizen and environmental steward. Founded in Chico in 1980, SNBC encourages renewable energy generation, resource and energy conservation and reuse and recycling of raw materials as guiding operating principles. The need to reduce the company’s impact on the environment has taken the lead in policy making, with every effort taken to leave the smallest footprint possible.

Energy generation

Sierra Nevada’s commitment to energy efficiency and reducing its environmental impact has led it to look at many alternatives for its energy requirements, since the production needs of brewing beer place a large demand on the electricity grid. With the rising cost of electricity and the growing need for cleaner renewable energy sources, SNBC looked at many options for producing or purchasing energy, finally settling on the methods detailed below.

Fuel cells
SNBC’s greatest contribution to emissions reductions is the addition of one of the largest direct fuel cell installations in the United States – four biogas-powered 250 kW cogeneration fuel cell power units, totaling one megawatt of power (expandable to 1.2 MW), which supply electricity and heat to the brewery. The 1 MW of power output produced by the cells covers most of the brewery’s electrical demand. The overall energy efficiency of the installation is about double that of grid-supplied power meaning that emissions are significantly reduced.

The brewing kettles are heated by biogas-powered 1 MW co-generation fuel cells all images snbc

The fuel cells that SNBC installed are direct fuel cells; meaning that they produce the hydrogen required to run them directly within the units rather than producing hydrogen externally then pumping it to the cells. The cells run on a combination of natural gas and methane rich biogas that is pumped directly into the units. The direct fuel cells use a high temperature catalytic process to crack the hydrogen from the gas. This produces not only the hydrogen required to run the cells, but heat. SNBC’s fuel cells feed into heat recovery boilers to capture the heat produced during operation and reuse it for other energy needs at the brewery. So, these fuel cells not only produce a substantial portion of the brewery’s energy needs, but they also supply heat to run the kettles required for making beer.

At SNBC, the energy loop has been closed a little further by supplying the fuel cells with waste methane generated on site. Methane is a major greenhouse gas and is typically flared off into the atmosphere. The methane generated at SNBC comes from the on-site water purification plant. There are two methods employed in SNBC’s water treatment process: aerobic and anaerobic digestion. The anaerobic digestion process produces waste methane due to decomposition in the absence of oxygen. Recovery devices that capture the methane as it is produced were installed; it is then piped over the fuel cells. Two of the four cells are currently running on methane and the other two cells will be converted by April 2007. By using the methane generated on site, SNBC is further lowering their demand on the energy grid as well as eliminating a substantial amount of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Solar panels
Another major contribution to SNBC’s energy needs, to be completed this year, is a 500 kW photovoltaic solar system. With an average of 285 days of sunlight each year, PV is a logical method for generating power in Northern California. SNBC is working with PowerLight Corporation to provide a PV system that will cover three acres – including a covered parking lot to provide shade for vehicles during the hot Chico summers – and provide enough electricity to power SNBC’s waste water treatment plant, with electricity to spare. This in turn will further close the on-site energy loop, reducing event further the emissions needed to produce the methane to power the fuel cells.

Recycling and waste minimization forms an important part of the environmental strategy

The PV system SNBC is installing will be grid connected – it will be capable of sending unused power back into the electricity grid. Rather than having stationary panels, the modules will be mounted on trackers and so will be able to track the sun over the course of a day as it crosses the sky. Where clouds are scarce, using a tracking system allows panels to maximize their energy production and increase their efficiency of operation. In an effort to become fully energy independent, SNBC is also currently researching the potential for adding solar panels to the roofs of their packaging, storage, and POS warehouses.

Other measures
In addition to these exciting energy generation systems, a series of energy-saving measures have also been taken throughout SNBC. Fixtures have been retrofitted with electronic ballast lights and motion sensors; air compressors have been replaced with ultra-efficient, speed-controlled drives; high-efficiency motors and refrigeration systems are in use and energy efficient electronics and appliances are in place throughout the brewery. Not only has SNBC installed modern high-tech equipment to increase energy efficiency, but energy conservation is a common and encouraged practice at the brewery. All employees are encouraged and advised to help the brewery maintain as many energy efficient practices as possible and are also encouraged to take these energy efficient practices home with them.

Other emission reduction policies

In December, 2006, SNBC joined the California Climate Action Registry (www.climateregistry.org) – a voluntary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reporting database that allows businesses, non-profit organizations, municipalities, state agencies, and other entities to record emissions. The Registry requires the reporting of all direct GHG emissions (mobile and stationary combustion, fugitive emissions from refrigeration, and process function emissions), along with indirect GHG emissions from electricity purchases.The Registry requires the reporting of only CO2 emissions for the first three years of participation with the reporting of all six gases covered in the Kyoto Protocol (CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, and SF6) required after three years of Registry participation. All emissions are certified by third party entities. SNBC will be reporting CO2 emissions for 2006 and will be reporting all emissions thereafter.

The main entrance to the Sierra Nevada Brewery Company

The Registry has developed a protocol that helps reporting entities determine what to measure, how to measure, the back-up data required, and certification requirements. SNBC is currently in the process of gathering the required data for reporting 2006 emissions, which will serve as the baseline year for which all other emissions reports will be measured against. By reporting its emissions, SNBC will have an accurate picture of the impacts which the company has on the atmosphere, and will gain insight into ways they can cut their emissions output while increasing energy efficiency. SNBC’s emissions report will be available on the website in autumn 2007.

Prior to joining the Registry, SNBC took proactive measures to decrease emissions. CO2 and heat recovery systems were installed in 2004. CO2 is a by-product of the fermentation process and is often released directly into the atmosphere. SNBC installed CO2 recovery devices that allow the capture this important greenhouse gas. After it is captured it is piped over to the packaging line where it is reused in the bottling process. The heat recovery system serves a similar function in that it captures fugitive heat and cycles it back into the boiling process.

Powered partially by biogas, the fuel cells are an important part of the company’s greenhouse gas reduction strategy

Transportation is one of the largest GHG-causing industries within the state of California. With this in mind, SNBC decided to begin bringing in grains from Canada by rail instead of by truck. This greatly increases the efficiency of the transportation process while lowering emissions. SNBC is currently leasing a rail spur less than 15 miles from the brewery where grains are brought in by rail and then to the brewery by truck. SNBC has recently purchased land within 2 miles of the brewery, where it will build its own rail spur.

SNBC is also currently researching ways to convert its long-haul trucks to use a biodiesel fuel instead of the standard diesel currently in use. Biodiesel has the potential to lower the emissions of the trucks while using a renewable resource for the fuel. In addition, SNBC is currently researching ways to use its own waste – primarily from its restaurant – to create the biodiesel.

The on-site water treatment plant provides biogas for the fuel cells and will soon be solar powered

Finally, the brewery’s employees are strongly encouraged to reduce dependence on fossil fuels while lowering emissions. They have recently started a bike riding programme with great incentives for employees to ride their bikes to work, run errands, or just for fun. Chico is a small town (100,000 residents) and most employees live within a comfortable bike riding distance. For those employees who live in towns surrounding Chico, we encourage them to ride their bikes to do errands around their town (going to the movies, store, library, etc.). This programme has been well received thus far and we are planning to continue growing the alternative transportation programme over the next year in order to reduce the number of cars on the road.

Other sustainable practices

Recycling and reusing
Recycling also has an important role at the brewery with a 95% waste diversion goal in place for all employees. SNBC has been the recipient of California’s WRAP (Waste Reduction Award Programme) Award for the past 6 years. This award is given by the State of California to companies or agencies that are successful in diverting a substantial portion of their waste. SNBC consumers can see the WRAP logo on the bottom of all 6- and 12-pack cases. In 2006, SNBC was successful in diverting 33,793 tonnes of materials from the landfill; during that same year, the company only produced 946 tonnes of rubbish.

The greatest amount of material that is recycled yearly is spent grains, hops, and yeast left over from the brewing process. These materials are collected and sold to local dairy farms within 100-150 miles of the brewery as a feed additive.

SNBC also collects and recycles corrugated cardboard, boxboard cuttings, shrink wrap, cans and bottles, scrap glass, plastics, batteries, scrap metal, wire, and paper. It has been successful in diverting much of the construction debris that has been generated as the company continues to expand – wood, concrete, asphalt, fixtures, and other miscellaneous parts. Wood is sent to a local co-generation plant, asphalt and concrete are ground up and reused as a road base, and fixtures and other miscellaneous parts are give to a local building reuse store.

There are many instances of reuse at SNBC: the boxes that the bottle caps (crowns) come in are given to our distributors to package the merchandise we sell in the gift shop; all packing material received is collected and reused in the POS department; pallets are given to a local pallet recycler for rebuilding; all old computers and accessories are donated to a local non-profit that rebuilds them for local classrooms.

Food and other organic wastes make up a substantial portion of landfills and is a material that SNBC is trying very hard to divert. When these organic materials are broken down in an anaerobic environment, like a landfill, methane gas is created. As stated previously, methane is a leading greenhouse gas. SNBC is already successful in diverting some of this material and is researching ways to compost its food waste in a manner that meets state and local permitting requirements. Near SNBC, a composting facility exists that is capable of handling green organic wastes, such as leaves, grass, and in the company’s case, some of the dry hops that are used in the brewing process. There is not, however, a facility close by that is capable of handling food waste. SNBC is currently researching and experimenting with composting this material on site and is expecting to have a programme to divert food waste by the end of summer 2007.

Community involvement
SNBC employees are involved in many groups and activities that are designed to return something to community. Some examples of community events that employees participate in include raising money for multiple non-profit organizations, donating goods to local families in need during the holidays, cleaning up an adopted section of highway once a month, and volunteering at local shelters and various other events around our community.

Pub food
SNBC also understands the impact that agriculture has on the environment. Therefore, the company makes several efforts to ensure the food it uses in its restaurant – as well as the grains and hops used in its beer – are grown in a sustainable fashion. Every week, the head chef at the restaurant makes a trip to the local farmer’s market to purchase locally grown, in-season produce for use in the dishes prepared. SNBC purchased a herd of cattle that is pasture-raised organically – with no hormones or shots of any kind. SNBC has partnered with the local university, CSU, Chico, to have the cattle finished and processed just a few miles from our restaurant. This not only ensures that the beef served in the restaurant is chemical-free, but also the freshest meat possible.

Cheri Chastain is Sustainability Co-ordinator at SNBC
e-mail: cheri@sierranevada.com

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