Savoy, a region in the French Alps, is famous for its food — namely its cheeses, some of which have been made in the area since the 13th century.
But now, according to the Independent, one Alpine power station is using the region’s famous cheese in an unexpected way — to generate enough electricity to supply power for a community of 1,500 people.
Technically, the power station — located in Albertville in the southeastern part of France — uses whey, a byproduct leftover from the production of the town’s famous Beaufort cheese. Whey is the liquid that is released from the curds during the cheese-making process, and it’s the same liquid that often rises to the top of yogurt products. It is mostly water, but is also contains things like proteins and milk sugars. It’s incidental to most cheese-making processes — the curds are what eventually becomes the finished cheese product — and is often considered a waste product by cheese makers. Unfortunately for cheese producers, the process of making cheese results in a lot of residual whey — for every pound of cheese, a producer is normally left with about a gallon of whey.
When bacteria is added to whey, however, they begin to digest the sugars. That, in turn, produces methane, a biogas that can be captured and used as fuel. In Albertville, that methane is then fed through a machine that heats water to 194 degrees Fahrenheit, which in turn generates electricity. According to the Independent, the Albertville plant is able to produce an estimated 3,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually. That electricity, according to the Telegraph, is eventually sold to French energy giant EDF.
The power station, which opened in October, was designed and built by the Canadian company Valbio, which specializes in turning organic waste into methane biogas. And the Albertville station isn’t Valbio’s first foray into the cheese-power business: previously, the company helped the Laiterie Charlevoix dairy farm, the Blackburn Dairy, and the La Vache à Maillotte — all in Quebec — turn their whey into biogas. According to the Telegraph, Valbio also has projects planned for Australia, Italy, Brazil, and Uruguay.
Power from American cheese
A few places in the United States have also tried their hand at turning whey into energy. In 2008, Kraft announced that two of its cheese plants in New York would begin turning their whey into biogas in an effort to replace some of the natural gas the plants used for energy. In Wisconsin, the country’s top cheese-producing state, the Montchevré cheese company also installed a digester in order to turn whey into energy, something that was “in line with the philosophy of the company to be green,” according to a company representative.
Whey leftover from the cheese-making process is not an easy product to dispose of. High in phosphorus and nitrogen, it can’t be dumped into water sources — like fertilizers, an excess of whey could lead to things like dead zones and algal blooms. Domestic environmental regulations also restrict the amount of whey that can be spread across land — in the top cheese-producing states of Wisconsin and New York, the application of whey to land is regulated by government agencies, and farmers are required to limit the amount they apply.
In California, whey regulations have been so burdensome for some producers that they’ve been forced to shutter their cheese-making operations. Imperial Valley Cheese, the state’s last producer of Swiss and Muenster cheeses, shuttered its doors in 2013, citing a lack of financially feasible disposal options for their whey.
That leaves cheese producers with few options for the millions of tons of whey produced in the country each year — some turn whey into a food product (such as whey protein powder), while others add it to feed for livestock. But for isolated or small operations — which lack the infrastructure and volume to make shipping whey to food processing plants financially viable — turning whey into power offers a third option.
Bob Willis, owner of Clock Shadow Creamery and Cedar Grove Cheese in Wisconsin, says that for his smaller operation — which is located in an urban setting — turning whey into power allows the company to both dispose of their whey and offset their power needs. Willis sends whey from his Milwauke operation to a digester located about a mile outside of town, where Willis’ whey and waste water is mixed with other organic waste — food waste, waste from breweries — and converted into energy.
“By sending the whey and the wash water to the digester, we end up being a net-energy generating business,” Willis told ThinkProgress. “There is a surplus of energy beyond what we use in our production process that is enough to run somewhere between five and 10 houses for a year.”
Willis said that sending whey to digesters is less common among his peers, though he envisions the practice growing in the future.
“I think more and more people are looking into it and there are certain situations where it makes sense, where people are relatively isolated and where the scale works right for them, or they can combine with some other source of waste,” he said. “I think the digester is at least a very strong second option [after turning whey into protein powder], if not the best way to dispose of it.”