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Posted: 2016-11-21 17:25:19


On-site Digestion for Smaller Food Businesses


Britain’s food industry is addressing demands to curtail its environmental impact and adopt more sustainable residue management practices.  New technology providers are facilitating the use of bio-degradable process residues to power production processes.  Such projects are a practical example of how the circular economy can help our manufacture of food and drink products.  Richard Gueterbock of on-site digestion technology specialists Clearfleau asks how smaller SME businesses in the food and drink industry can secure access to such technologies.


On-site digestion can generate renewable energy where residues are produced and the energy potential of bio-degradable food processing residues is considerable.  With increasing on-site deployment of AD technology, generation of energy from residues is a viable proposition.  But this needs greater recognition from Policy Makers and support for the transition of our manufacturing sector in the aftermath of the Paris Climate Change summit.


More companies in Britain’s food industry realise their process residues can be a source of renewable energy rather than just an unwanted cost.  With new plants on sites operated by multinationals like Diageo or Nestle, it is important to consider how this approach can be adopted by smaller (SME) processing companies, helping to decarbonise our food supply chain.  


Gas from Cheese - Lake District Biogas


With some high-profile plants on larger processing sites, opportunities exist for the smaller food processing businesses that proliferate in the food and drink sector to follow suit.   Clearfleau’s latest on-site AD plant is supplying energy to First Milk’s Aspatria cheese creamery (sufficient to heat the equivalent of 4,000 homes) in Cumbria.  On-site digestion is converting liquid process residues from cheese-making into energy for use in the creamery. 


At First Milk’s cheese creamery in the scenic Lake District (the largest on-site digestion plant in the European dairy processing sector) self-generated energy is being supplied to the cheese-making process.  This is the first on-site AD bio-energy plant to feed gas into the gas grid, based only on treating the residues from cheese-making, without other non-dairy feedstocks. 


The plant will generate up to 1000m3/ day of biogas, most of which will be upgraded for injection to the national gas grid, from where much of the gas will power the site’s boilers.  When fully on stream, the bio-energy plant will reduce the site’s fossil fuel consumption by at least 25%, as well as cutting transport costs and related fuel use.  Cleansed water is discharged to the nearby river Ellen (after phosphate removal) reducing the site’s impact on the local environment. 


Lake District Biogas (www.lakedistrictbiogas.com) was set up to manage the project with external funding, allowing First Milk to concentrate on its milk-processing activity.  The plant will remove 7,000 tonnes of carbon per annum from the supply chain.  While reducing fuel costs and carbon emissions, the plant will also supply green gas to local houses and reduce traffic on local roads.  


Wider Food Sector Deployment


Adding value to process residues can reduce costs and generate revenue.  On-site digestion (of process residues on farms as well as on factories) is a growing sector of the renewable energy sector, where the UK has been taking the lead on technology development and deployment.  Corporate expectations are changing across the food processing sector, and global Industry leaders are backing the concept of generating energy from production and processing residues. 


On-site digestion can produce base load for use at the point where bio-degradable residues are produced by capturing methane that would otherwise be released.  For materials like whey or fatty process residues, revenue from on-site AD can outweigh returns from other markets and provide a better return on investment than conventional treatment and disposal options.


Generation of energy from residues needs greater recognition from policy makers, with support for transition of our manufacturing sector in the aftermath of the Paris Climate Change summit.  Government must recognize the value of on-site decentralised energy from process residues and the value of technologies that supply base load, generated where the energy is consumed. 


Support for Transition to the Circular Economy


Food businesses need encouragement to become more sustainable and reduce fossil fuel use.  More widespread development of smaller-scale bio-energy plants requires confidence in the incentive regime which will make it much easier to secure the funding to develop new plants.


It is time Government recognized the value of on-site decentralised energy from technologies that can supply base load power that is generated where the energy is consumed.  This applies across the AD sector, in particular on-site projects where future effort should be focused. 


After the recent Paris Climate Change Summit, CEOs of 10 global food and drink companies, including Unilever and Nestle declared that: “We want the facilities where we make our products to be powered by renewable energy, with nothing going to waste, as corporate leaders, we have been working hard toward these ends, but we can and must do more”.


This significant intervention from global business leaders is aligned with a wider vision for a more sustainable approach to on-site residue management.  Politicians should welcome this statement and work with food industry leaders to respond to the challenge of de-carbonising  food processing and supporting the sectors’ transition to a more circular economy. 


Equally, politicians should be urged to reverse the recent reduction in renewables incentives for smaller plants and support the on-going de-carbonisation of food production.   The message must be that bio-residues should be used for energy generation and the incentive regime must be extended to support wider adoption of on-site bio-energy plants across the food industry. 


Unhelpful plans to cut limited support for renewables, announced recently by DECC, have been condemned by commentators as a failure to follow up the UK commitment to the Paris summit.  Ministers must do more to encourage UK food processing sites to reduce their environmental impact.  Our SME businesses need sustained Government support if they are to become more sustainable.   Hundreds of small on-site bio-energy plants will support delivery of renewables targets and provide a wide range of economic, energy supply and environmental benefits.