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Cheese firms takes its slice of sustainability

Renewable energy

A Lake District creamery running one of the UK’s largest cheese producers, The First Milk Cheese Company, has recently been connected to an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant that uses its waste rather than sending it to an effluent treatment facility.

The creamery at Aspatria uses the AD plant to convert cheese whey and production residues into biogas for use as a local energy source. It is the latest plant to be installed by Clearfleau, and has attracted much attention because of its innovative treatment of cheese residues.

By using the biomethane generated, it supplies energy to the creamery itself as well as local homes. It is a great example of decentralised energy generation adding value in the circular economy (CE).

First Milk faced a number of issues from a financial, operational and environmental viewpoint. Its old effluent treatment works needed capital investment for an upgrade to ensure compliance with Environment Agency (EA) requirements. Other pressures came from rising energy costs and declining milk prices.

The company wanted to reduce its overheads and bring the treatment works up to date to take advantage of the latest more efficient and cost-effective technology used in processing both liquid and solid fatty residues. There was also scope to reduce the site’s carbon footprint, cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the plant’s reliance on fossil fuels. First Milk also needed to minimise the risk of watercourse pollution, with the plant located in an area susceptible to flooding.

Clearfleau was asked to design and install an on-site AD facility. Deployed exclusively on industrial sites, Clearfleau’s system can generate renewable energy from a range of food processing residues.

The Aspatria project was funded by a separate business, Lake District Biogas, which was set up to develop the plant – Europe’s largest on-site digestion plant in the dairy sector. It is also the only dedicated creamery AD facility producing biomethane generated entirely from its processing residues, without the inclusion of additional non-dairy feedstocks. The plant willreduce creamery fossil fuel consumption by more than 25%, producing 1,000cu m/hour of biogas.

The plant’s small volume of residual biosolids is supplied to local farms as a source of nutrients for grass to feed some of the cows that supply the creamery. This is a great example of sustainable food production, adding value to dairy residues when prices and margins are under pressure across the EU.

The AD plant cost more than £9m, with a payback in less than five years. It is designed to cut fossil fuel consumption and save First Milk the £3m cost of replacing its ageing effluent treatment plant.

Clearfleau worked with the EA to ensure compliance. The plant has helped to secure the future of the creamery and has brought a high-profile green energy project into Cumbria.

After the recent Paris Climate Change Summit, a group of chief executives of global food companies stated: “We want the facilities where we make our products to be powered by renewable energy with nothing going to waste.”

The First Milk project shows that it is now possible for smaller companies – which frequently lack the funds available to giants such as Nestlé or Diageo for sustainability projects – to make a contribution. The Aspatria plant is an effective demonstration of the CE in action, reducing carbon emissions and generating renewable energy. Its proven digestion process can manage production residues, and the approach could extend across Europe’s food and drink sector.

Key benefits of the biogas facility

  • 25% reduction in the site’s annual energy costs
  • Price stability for the site’s power supply
  • Replacing fossil fuels and removing 7,000 tonnes of carbon annually from the supply chain
  • Clean water discharge, removing phosphates and greatly reducing bio-oxygen demand

Source: First Milk

Richard Gueterbock is marketing director of Clearfleau

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