Electric boilers fuel Diageo’s carbon-neutral whiskey distillery dream

Energy

Even whiskey is going electric. Distilleries have long been difficult operations to electrify due to the large heat loads it requires to turn grain into one of humanity’s oldest vices, alcohol. But Diageo’s new 72,000-square-foot distillery is designed to be completely carbon-neutral. According to Diageo, it should avoid more than 117,000 metric tons of annual carbon emissions by switching to renewable electricities compared to operating using a traditional natural gas facility. 

“This is an opportunity to build a new distillery from the ground up,” said Andrew Jarrick, North American environmental sustainability manager at Diageo. “It’s not every day you get that opportunity.” 

The Kentucky facility primarily will produce Bulleit Whiskey (Diageo also makes Guinness, Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray, Bailey’s, Captain Morgan and others) and will be one of the largest carbon-neutral distilleries in North America, according to the company. The facility is under construction, with completion slated by mid-2021. Eventually, it will produce 10 million proof gallons of whiskey and employ about 30 full-time brewers. 

The distilling process has three large heat requirements: first to cook the grain into mash; then as steam to capture the ethanol in a distillation column; and finally for drying the leftover grain for alternative uses. 

Moving away from fossil fuels for this heat production was the first step and the first big obstacle for Diageo. 

“The distillery industry is built on very traditional ways of thinking and relies very heavily on time-tested methodologies,” Jarrick said. “We want to produce the same liquid every time. The biggest challenge was to maintain that process integrity, but also move on from traditional fossil fuels.”

Instead of traditional equipment, the facility will use 22-foot tall high voltage jet electrode boilers from Precision Boilers. Aside from not using fossil fuels and emitting less greenhouse gases than usual, electric boilers require less maintenance. Gabriel Dauphin, vice president of sales and marketing at Precision Boilers, told GreenBiz via email that the boilers use conductive and resistive properties to carry an electric current and generate steam. 

Unlike fossil fuel boilers, which have a certain minimum energy output before turning off, the electric boilers can be turned down to any level before shutting down completely and they can get to the desired heat level almost immediately, Dauphin wrote. This makes the boilers much more precise and nearly 100 percent efficient, with the bonus of zero emissions, he said.

Once they decided to make the leap to electric boilers, Jarrick and his team opted to electrify as much as possible in the operation. The lighting in the facility will use LEDs, all the vehicles on the property will be electric and the atmospheric heat systems Diageo will include for  the comfort of workers are likely to use electricity rather than a fossil fuel source. The company is also installing occupancy sensors, lower ceilings and exterior solar panels to help increase energy efficiency. Diageo wouldn’t comment on the exact financial costs or long-term savings associated with the carbon-neutral facility.  

Diageo plans to get 100 percent of its electricity needs for the site from renewable sources through partnerships with East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Inter-County Energy. These companies will provide a mix of solar and wind energy to power the distillery.

Continuing on its carbon-neutral promise, the facility plans to be zero waste to landfill by giving the dry leftover grain to organizations that can use it for animal feed. 

While electric boilers were key for getting this project to carbon-neutral, Jarrick doesn’t know if Diageo is a true convert and will go electric across all its operations. But to deliver on Diageo’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions and sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, it must make additional changes. 

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