Solar Heating Solutions for the Brewery, Distillery, and Wine Industries

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Solar panels at la brewery.

In recent years, the growth of craft brewing in the United States has been nothing short of explosive. The producers who thrive in this competitive market will be the ones who can lower production costs while maintaining the consistently high quality responsible for their success. In an age in which the American public increasingly demands social responsibility from their favored brands, environmentally sound practices are becoming more and more important.

Advanced solar thermal technologies can provide an ideal solution. High-temperature solar thermal collectors, which require no tracking, utilize the newest technology to provide clean, renewable energy for heating and cooling processes at a lower overall cost than any other energy source. Because these systems collect both diffuse and direct sunlight, they are able to be effectively installed across the globe.

The growth of microdistilleries in the United States has also been explosive. The number of craft distillers rose from 24 in 2000 to 52 in 2005, with 234 at the end of 2011 and more than 1,280 in 2015. The compound annual growth rate of distilled spirits permits was 16% between 2007 and 2015. The number of production facilities in the United States has more than tripled since 2007, and the number of craft distilleries in the country is the highest it’s been since Prohibition.

The growth of the brewery industry is significantly greater. The Brewers Association, the trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, has released 2015 data on U.S. craft brewing growth: With more breweries than ever before, small and independent craft brewers now represent a 12% market share of the overall beer industry. And in 2015, the number of operating breweries in the United States rose 15%, totaling 4,269 breweries.

It’s also been reported that in 2015, craft brewers produced 24.5 million barrels, seeing a 13% rise in volume and a 16% increase in retail dollar value. Retail dollar value has been estimated at $22.3 billion, representing a 21% market share.

Aiming for Sustainability in Brewing and Distilling Processes

Brewing and distilling are energy-intensive processes, and every brewing company should aim to develop a sustainable process — with efficient energy consumption — in order to achieve savings in fuel and energy costs. Plenty of heat is needed to make beer and spirits: The mash for beer and distilled spirits is made with hot water, wort must be boiled before fermentation, and hot water is also used for distilling the fermented wash to evaporate the alcohol.

While many brewers have chosen photovoltaics (PV) as a solar solution, they may be better off using solar thermal energy in a way that would have a bigger impact on brewery energy reductions while also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. PV may have more impact on the energy costs of wineries, but it still has a large thermal load that can be generated by solar thermal.

Energy usage in breweries varies depending on size, location, and product. Refrigeration generally creates the largest electrical load, while brewing consumes the largest amount of natural gas or propane (used for heat). The major consumers of electricity in breweries are refrigeration (44%), packaging (20%), and compressed air (10%).

Solar thermal cooling can reduce the demand for electricity needed for refrigeration. Single- and double-effect absorption/adsorption chillers can produce the chilled water for refrigeration and heat energy for the process.

The natural gas or propane energy consumption in breweries is typically as follows:

  • Space heating — 10%
  • Utilities — 20%
  • Packaging — 25%
  • Brewhouse — 45%

The 45% of brewhouse energy used in the brewing process poses a significant cost to the brewer. The competition for market share will depend on brewer costs per barrel to produce, location or access to market, and the taste and quality of the brew.

Brewery Energy Costs on the Rise

Energy costs are forecasted to continue to rise. In its January 2017 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said it expected the Henry Hub natural gas spot price to average $3.55 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2017 and $3.73/MMBtu in 2018, both higher than the 2016 average of $2.51/MMBtu.

The higher prices in 2017 and 2018 reflect natural gas consumption and exports exceeding supply and imports, leading to lower average inventory levels. Natural gas prices have been historically low, but we know they will rise again, as they always do. This will certainly affect all food processing industries and will have a great impact on breweries, distilleries, and wineries alike.

The average kWh/BBL ranges for breweries of all sizes is well documented. In general, smaller breweries have higher kWh/BBL numbers because their smaller volumes do not offset the base energy required to brew a barrel of beer. The kWh/BBL represents the amount of energy used to produce one barrel of beer.

The average relative energy use for typical breweries is as follows:

  • Electrical usage — 12 to 22 kWh/bbl
  • Thermal (natural gas) usage — 1.3 to 1.5 therms/bbl
  • Combined usage — 50 to 66 kWh/bbl

Using Solar Thermal Energy to Reduce Costs

Solar thermal energy can be used for heating processes in all brewing and distillation processes, bottle washing machines, and pasteurizers, as well as for cooling processes with absorption chillers. These are heat-dependent processes that can easily be supplied through solar heating.

Put simply, the sun is the most economical energy provider. In recent years, many brewers and distillers have put great effort into energy conservation by installing photovoltaic solutions to generate electricity and solar thermal energy collectors to produce heat for the processes.

Installing solar thermal systems should be part of a larger effort to develop an environmentally sustainable system that actually reduces electricity and fuel costs. An advanced solar thermal system will result in twice the efficiency of traditional solar (“solar PV”) and can reach temperatures up to 400 °F with no moving parts.

These systems would reduce more than twice the amount of GHG emissions and generate more than twice the usable energy for brewing and distilling industries. Such solutions make use of age-old technology, which uses the sun to directly or indirectly heat fluid, thereby reducing system costs and allowing it to be installed anywhere across the globe.

Advanced solar thermal collectors developed for use in industrial and commercial applications require high temperatures. Some collectors reach operating temperatures between 190 °F to 400 °F. The lower temperatures are used for water heating, while the higher temperatures operate solar space heating systems and provide the power necessary for high efficiency. Plus, these collectors allow for the lowest energy costs in producing live steam for process heating.

Steam consumption for a brewery is about 100 kg/hour, the standard value for a capacity of a 600 liter pot, assuming one hour is needed to bring the mash to a boil. To finish the process, you need an additional one and a half hours, consuming approximately 70 kg steam per hour.

Solar Heating Applications in Breweries and Wineries

A few solar heating applications for breweries include:

  • Heating the mash
  • Boiling the wort
  • Washing bottles/kegs
  • Sanitation and cleanup

And some solar heating applications for distilleries include:

  • Preheating steam or oil boilers
  • Fermenter/wash
  • Heat for the pot and distillation column
  • Washing bottles
  • Sanitation and cleanup

Energy Usage in the Wine Industry

A study conducted in California several years ago reported that the wine industry was the largest energy user among the various food and beverage industries. It is estimated that up to 70-80% of the energy consumed by a winery is electricity, and up to 25% is natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), or diesel.

A properly designed solar heating system could produce up to 80-90% of the thermal heating and fossil fuel consumption required by a winery. Low-cost storage for thermal systems allows the heat to be supplied to the winery whenever demand is present, not just during the daylight hours.

Winemaking is an energy-intensive process. Even small operations use large amounts of energy. Because of this, some states have begun to implement formal sustainability programs to reduce energy use at wineries. These programs have demonstrated that energy efficiency improvements and on-site renewable energy generation can significantly reduce a winery’s energy demand.

The wine industry uses significantly less heat energy load than breweries or distilleries, but still has a high demand for hot water used for:

  • Washing harvest
  • Washing barrels or bottles
  • Sanitation and cleanup needs, which are much more involved in wineries than breweries or distilleries
  • Space heating

Vineyards may also have limited distillation processes for wines that are not of sufficient quality for supermarket shelves. These wines can be converted into Cognac-style brandies or even into port wines that can be added to a product line. Some vineyards may choose to distill a trendy grappa from the grape residuals not useful for wine.

The Advantages of Solar Thermal Heating

Whether you’re making a fine craft beer, a smooth distilled beverage, or taking the vineyard to the wine bottle, there are many diverse applications for solar thermal heating systems. Allowing for reduced costs and tangible environmental benefits, these sophisticated systems can greatly improve brewery, distillery, and winery operations.

Ready to get started? Take the first step today, and assess what you can do to improve operations in your processes and facilities. 


Image Credit: Anna50/

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