In our latest series, Small Changes, Big Impact, we explore the compound effect that minor adjustments can have on boosting sustainability. The second article plugs into affordable ways breweries can boost sustainability and save money by cutting down on energy consumption.

Dark Cellar in Brewery

With climbing electricity costs threatening to eat into post-pandemic profits, brewery owners who’ve previously enjoyed a relatively free flow of energy may now place a premium on lowering their consumption. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American manufacturing plant paid $.083 per kilo-watt hour (kWh) in November 2022 – up from $.074 the November prior. Combining those numbers with the Brewers Association’s (BA) estimate that a barrel of beer takes 50-66 kWh to produce, it stands that a brewery with an annual output of 10,000 barrels pays between $41,500-$54,780 for energy each year.   

Fortunately, as the BA writes in its Energy Usage, GHG Reduction, Efficiency and Load Management Manual, “Many systems in breweries offer substantial energy-saving potential, including boilers, refrigeration and cooling systems, compressed-air systems, motors, and packaging systems. As a result, breweries can benefit significantly from several strategies that are easy to implement at little or no cost.”

In this second installment of our Small Changes, Big Impact sustainability series, we’ll show you which energy-saving strategies might work best for you. 

(Ed note: The BA, Energy Star and others offer guides with extraordinary amounts of detail. Don’t worry that many date back a decade or more; BA Technical Brewing Projects Director Chuck Skypeck says their common-sense solutions still apply, and later technological advancements in this sector mostly haven’t scaled to a size that makes sense for an average craft brewery.)

Where Does All the Energy Go?

In a typical brewery, thermal sources like natural gas generate steam and hot water for brewing, packaging and ambient heating, while electric energy generally powers a brewery’s equipment. 

Boiling wort sucks up more thermal power than any other process and accounts for up to a third of a brewery’s total energy bill. Yet despite natural energy averaging nearly three-quarters of a brewery’s consumption, it usually only comprises around 30% of the bill. 

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that refrigeration, packaging and compressed air, which draw electricity, constitute 70%.  

“Based on this,” writes the BA in its energy sustainability manual, “efforts to reduce electrical energy should be given top priority when considering energy reduction opportunities, as they account for the largest opportunity.”

Where to Start: Maintain Your Sources of Energy

If you’ve already read part #1 of this series, you know the most important step in a sustainability plan is to measure and analyze your utility expenditures to determine where you can make the smallest changes to generate the biggest impact. But you don’t need a spreadsheet to tell you the quickest and cheapest solutions here are also the most simple: eliminate waste and turn down the power. 

In this environment, waste management pretty much means preventative and restorative maintenance. 

Brandon Watkins, Senior Manager for Utilities Design, Execution and Optimization for Molson Coors says leaks account for 5-10% of loss at a brewery and can rapidly escalate without regular inspection. 

“At times we think leaks are marginal. In many breweries they’re pretty significant,” he says.

Maintenance crews should look out for dirt and breakage and be sure to clean, fix or replace anything that uses air or water, with special attention paid to broken belts, stuck dampers, dirty filters, dusty lighting fixtures, and all heating and cooling systems. If you have an economizer to capture exhaust heat, a technician should clean, calibrate and lubricate it annually. 

The E Source utilities research and consulting firm writes in its brewery overview, “Economizers are prone to failure, and a broken economizer can increase heating and cooling costs by up to 50%.”

Where to Start: Turn Down the Power

Your dad was right about one thing: If a light, appliance or temperature-control unit doesn’t need to be on, turn it off. This doesn’t just apply to bathrooms. Deschutes Brewing in Oregon saved $200 a month by turning on tasting room lights, fans and TVs right before they opened the doors. If you’re hosting an event, power up projectors, microphones and generators just before go-time.

Throughout the building, whether it’s lighting, HVAC or something else, match output to demand through room-to-room or zone coverage. You don’t need to fully light, heat or cool your entire building when not all departments are in-office, and ancillary areas like the milling room may not need much temperature control at all.

Luckily, options to automate these tasks abound. 

A simple timer can control, say, lights in the parking lot, and a pre-programmed dimmer can light the way for an overnight cleaning crew that doesn’t need sunshine-level-illumination to do its job. Daylight controls measure the amount of natural light coming in and regulate the amount of artificial light emitted, while occupancy sensors read certain variable signals – like the amount of carbon dioxide in a room – to determine occupancy and adjust accordingly. 

E Source says occupancy sensors can conserve 30% to 75% of lighting energy and usually pay for themselves in one to three years.

Note: You may also want to consider “delamping,” which, just like it sounds, involves taking extra lights out of commission. The BA says you can reduce lighting electricity by more than 35% by replacing antiquated fluorescent fixtures with LEDs or T8 lamps and electronic ballasts. Though it’s tempting to wait until your bulbs blow out, Sierra Nevada Brewing sustainability director Mandi McKay says a business may realize enough savings to justify the effort and expense to do it beforehand, especially if it’s a large space like a warehouse or office complex. 

Shift change: Time Operations to Maximize Energy Efficiency

The beauty of a brewery is that some operations can occur when most convenient or conservation-minded. Though it may not prove the most popular move, owners can drastically reduce charges and surcharges by scheduling energy-intensive processes like packaging outside of peak hours, and brewers can stack several batches back-to-back to cut down on the time and energy it takes to prepare boilers for use.  

Don’t Keep the Motor Running

You’ve heard the term “motor mouth” to refer to someone who talks non-stop? Well, some motors just don’t need to keep running on and on like that. Variable speed drives (VSD) and variable frequency drives (VFD) convert a fixed-rate supply of incoming electricity into a variable output that amps up or slows down a motor,  depending on current need (pun intended). Both types of drives bring blessed silence and significant savings to pumps, fans, compressors, HVAC systems and, most significantly, packaging-line conveyor belts that can benefit from speed control and soft starts/stops.    

The BA writes, “Modern VSDs are affordable and reliable, have flexibility of control, and offer significant electrical energy savings (from 10 – 60%) through greatly reduced electric bills.”

When it comes time to repair or replace old motors consider two reasons to replace: One, your current motor may be heftier (read: more inefficient) than its workload warrants, and two, E Source says, “New, more efficient units can save significant amounts of energy and yield short, simple payback periods.”

Don’t Be a Blowhard

Compressed air systems may be a brewery’s most inefficient expense. Too frequently poorly designed and maintained, they commonly spring leaks that can expel 30-40% of air in the system and often comprise 10% of a brewery’s energy consumption – a problem that builds on itself by depressing the overall pressure in the system and requiring more compressors to compensate. Even the top models only function at 12-15% efficiency – releasing all that excess air into the environment. 

All of this is to say it behooves your brewery to use as little compressed air as possible. Staff shouldn’t use it to cool off, dry off or clean up, and pressure should get set at the lowest possible PSI for the job.

Stay Cool with Proper Refrigeration Practices

Cooling off with poorly functioning cold storage turns up the heat on electric bills, too, as refrigeration often comprises 35% of these for a brewery. To minimize costs, consider the following tips. 

Doors: Keep the automatic door closer in good working order, the hinges lubricated and the seals tight. If the door fittings still gape, rehang them to restrict airflow.

Debris: Conversely, remove anything that restricts airflow inside the condenser and evaporator coils.

Insulation: Prevent air from escaping the system unnecessarily by insulating the lines between remote condensers and the walk-in, as well as all refrigerant suction lines.

Refrigerant: Raise the glycol temperature to raise pressure in those suction lines, which raises savings on compressor energy by 2-3% per degree Fahrenheit. In addition, a glycol chiller whose head adjusts to ambient temperatures can consume a cool 20% less power.

(A note on glycol: though some large craft breweries are switching from glycol to ammonia for a more eco-friendly approach, Bell’s Beer environmental programs director Walker Modic says packaged chillers that take ammonia still really only accommodate breweries producing 100,000 bbls or more.)

Defrost: Set your auto defrost cycle to the minimum amount of time to keep frost from forming. E Source suggests seeing what happens if you set it to run four times a day for 15 minutes at a time. 

Curtains: Trap cool air inside open-case fridges and display cases by covering them in night curtains when the business is closed.

Finally, don’t let unwanted heat sources burn up efficiency:

  • Don’t use the built-in door heaters – designed to prevent frost build-up – if you don’t have to
  • Install cool LEDs or compact fluorescent lights (CFL) in your refrigeration units to increase efficiency and decrease heat waste
  • If possible, keep your heat-producing appliances like ovens and dishwashers away from your cooling appliances, which should be kept out of direct sunlight.

Wasting Heat Is Not Cool

If there’s one place the adage ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ doesn’t apply, it’s your boiler. The Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) says replacing your existing boiler with one that’s high efficiency or Energy Star-rated may be the most valuable heating purchase you can make.

“The lower lifetime operating costs of condensing water heaters, tankless water heaters, and condensing tankless water heaters will well outweigh the slightly higher initial cost of such units,” reads the organization’s Green Communities materials. 

Old or new, Green Communities advises hiring a professional to tune your boiler every year (or no less than once every three years). Inappropriately low pressure can cause “significant” heat loss, and high pressure can create steam leaks, which not only waste condensate but draw extra fuel and water to make up the difference.  

“Fixing a steam leak is the best low cost item that you can perform to improve overall steam system energy efficiency,” it says.

As with your refrigeration system, you’ll want to Insulate your steam and condensate return lines and components. 

It would be a pity to end waste in those ways without buffering against all the steam and heat that gets released into the environment by the boiler’s very design. Exhaust flue gas from a traditional boiler can reach above 500 degrees and usually ends up in the air. So why not recover that heat for use elsewhere?  

Plus, similar opportunities exist all over the brewhouse. 

Sierra Nevada and other eco-aware breweries utilize vapor condensers on their kettles to recover heat and steam as well as multiple heat exchangers throughout the brewing process to preheat water for other processes.

“You take that steam or hot water on one side of the exchanger and run cold or ambient water on the other side and now you’re ready to go,” says McKay. It’s a closed loop philosophy everybody can think about even if you’re small,” she says.

A Word About REC’s

If all of this sounds like a hassle, it may appear cheaper or easier to purchase renewable energy credits (REC) like solar or wind power from a local utility company. But truth be told, purchasing credits without first making your own brewery as efficient as possible wastes innumerable opportunities to actually conserve dwindling resources.

The BA energy manual cautions, “Each brewer should exhaust all opportunities to increase energy efficiency and lower operating costs before considering RECs.”

No doubt it can seem daunting. 

But as Skypeck says, it’s okay to take it one step at a time: “If a smaller brewer changes out fluorescent light bulbs for LEDs or replaces an old chiller with an Energy Star version, they all add up to make a difference.”

Water makes up the highest percentage of the ingredient list for beer. Download our eBook dedicated to all things water–from an introduction to water chemistry to brewing different beer styles to the effects of climate change on your water.