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Distilling the long term benefits of sustainability

Towards the end of last year the UK Government set out its Energy Bill. With a heavy focus on Electricity Market Reform, the Bill seeks to address a huge challenge which will have a major impact on all of us: how do we secure the vast levels of required investment to ensure we will have an affordable and reliable energy supply for decades to come? writes Jonny Clark.

photograph:Murdo Macleod

This issue affects all business sectors and especially those which are production-focused, including whisky distilleries which require relatively large amounts of energy to run their operations. Energy consumption continues to represent a significant proportion of a distillery’s running costs.

According to 2010 figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) the industry accounts for nearly 700,000 tonnes of equivalent CO2 emissions. Distillery operators have been robust in addressing these consumption levels, which have fallen by nearly 14% since 2008, with an on-going focus within the industry to implement additional measures to further increase sustainability and continue to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

While the rationale for doing this used to be more about corporate social responsibility and being a good corporate citizen, we are now seeing a shift in terms of what is motivating distilleries to become more sustainable. A commitment to reducing CO2 outputs is still a key driver but it is now being over-taken by even bigger concerns about energy security and reducing operational costs in the long term.

In the work we do with distilleries across Europe we are seeing a number of innovative sustainability and renewable energy options being implemented. A solar PV project initiated on behalf of a distillery in the French Cognac region included a 20 year contract to sell excess electricity back to the local utility firm EDF, making the project investment extremely viable.

Closer to home a recent project involved working with a lowland whisky distillery in Scotland which installed a ground source heat pump system to capture energy from its distilling process to heat its visitor centre. This has provided them with a low cost and low maintenance system and has reduced their reliance on conventional energy sources.

While these are examples of exciting and viable sustainability initiatives, I would always advise that the first step in addressing a distillery’s future energy needs should be focused on the management of its existing demand.

Jonny Clark

It is vital to scrutinise the current level of energy efficiency and ensure it is fully maximised before making capital investment into any new forms of sustainable energy. A fairly simple energy audit will prevent any potential over-investment and is a commercially advisable first step as it will often pay for itself within 6 – 12 months, a significant return compared with the typical five to 10 year pay-back period for investing in renewable energy technology.

Once the demand side is addressed and a more realistic idea of the level of future sustainable energy requirements is in place, there are a number of areas that distilleries can consider. The usual considerations will include wind and solar power along with ground source heat systems. Given most distilleries are situated on or very near to a water source, hydro energy is also a potentially viable opportunity.

Waste management is another important consideration in delivering greater sustainability and reducing cost and reliance on fossil fuels. We are seeing an overall increased amount of bio-mass waste being used to generate energy. While this practice would have been seen as non-viable in recent years, the UK Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive programme launched in 2011 is now making this a more attractive proposition, which is now being considered by a number of operators within the whisky distilling sector.

As the body which represents the UK whisky industry, the SWA has been proactive in helping encourage its members to further engage in the process of sustainability. We have been working with them and the Carbon Trust to develop a tool that can enable any distillery to determine what forms of renewable energy and improved waste management initiatives would best work best for them based on a range of relevant site-specific factors.

These include key elements such as the demand for power and heat as well site features such as wind speeds and extent of open or unshaded areas. All of this is aimed at helping the distillery sector continue its journey to greater sustainability.

While all this will continue to give a warm glow to those who operate in the sector, it will also help ensure long term viability in their operations by reducing both costs and the reliance on the global energy market in an uncertain world, an outcome which all businesses across the UK, not least production-focused ones, will wish to aspire.

Jonny Clark, director, WSP Future Energy

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