Each day, trucks filled with wastewater from a brewery in Petaluma, California, slog 50 miles south to a water treatment plant in Oakland. The brewing process leaves the water too full of organic compounds to be simply dumped in local sewer systems. But shipping away tens of thousands of gallons of water each day, amid a California drought of historic proportions, is an especially worrisome waste. And transporting them unleashes thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
On top of the obvious environmental impact, the shipments cost the company, Lagunitas – by volume the United States’s fifth largest craft brewer and 15th largest overall – thousands of dollars daily. The company must transport the water all the way to Oakland because Petaluma’s wastewater system (like many other sewer systems) can’t handle the “biological oxygen demand” of the organic materials in the water Lagunitas discharges. (Microorganisms require oxygen to break down organic materials that they eat as food; the higher the presence of these materials, the more oxygen gets depleted from these water sources.)
“It’s a hell of a lot of trucks and a hell of a lot of money,” CFO Leon Sharyon said. “For me it was just kind of appalling to think we had to haul this water by the truck to another facility 50, 60 miles away and then layer on top of this the environmental impact.”
Sharyon spoke with the Guardian days after California water officials decided to, forcing millions of residents, businesses and farmers throughout the state to ration water. Such restrictions underscore the ever-growing – and costly – thirst of business, industry, farms and cities. Anticipating a tightening water market, Lagunitas spent two years searching for a way to avoid trucking 50,000 precious gallons of water off site.
What it found was Cambrian Innovation.
Seeded with money from Nasa, the US Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation and a private-equity firm (controlled by Spanish infrastructure mogul Rafael del Pino Y Calvo-Sotelo), Cambrian sells a modular system that uses microbes to treat wastewater on site and generate energy in the process. The EcoVolt system, which is being marketed to breweries, wineries and food processors, transforms organic compounds found in effluent – especially dissolved carbon – into methane, which can be used for power and heat.
Lagunitas paid Cambrian $3.5m for two of these systems after comparing them to other anaerobic digesters quoted at prices between two and three times higher. Sharyon, whose company produced 400,000 barrels of beer last year and has grown 70% annually over the last three years, said he was sold by the scalability of Cambrian’s offering. Configured and manufactured to order, Cambrian will house the units in shipping containers and deliver them to Lagunitas.
“We drive it up in a flatbed trailer, drop it off and it’s good to go,” Cambrian CEO Matthew Silver said. His company’s 20 employees will operate the system remotely from their base in Boston and monitor Lagunitas’s water flow.
Evolved from technology originally developed at MIT, a standard EcoVolt system can process daily flow rates between 10,000 and 300,000 gallons, depending on the number of modules. The prefabricated system “can be treated like more of a product and less like a project”, Silver claims.
A pilot test of the EcoVolt system already ran at the winemaker Clos du Bois, a division of beverage giant Constellation Brands. California brewer Bear Republic started its own pilot in January. Bear Republic already has a low wastewater-to-beer ratio, and the partnership will try to reduce the brewer’s outside electricity demands by half.
Proof and competition
Other large US breweries already have in-house water-treatment. Anheuser-Busch, for example, gets nearly 10% of its fuel from a bioenergy recovery system installed at 10 of its breweries. Chico, California-based Sierra Nevada powers boilers with gas from on-site anaerobic digesters. In Portland, Oregon, where prices for brewery discharges have grown, Widmer Brewing – a partner in the US’s ninth-largest beer company – and a number of smaller breweries are considering similar facilities.
“A lot of them are getting way, way more conscious about [reuse] because water is their main input,” says Fletcher Beaudoin, sustainable partnerships director at Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions.
Anaerobic digesters, of course, aren’t new. Craig Criddle, a Stanford professor of environmental engineering and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, said EcoVolt will need to prove it can consistently remove enough organic materials for water to be used for other operations while recovering as much as 35% or more of the energy embodied in the organic matter to make commercial sense.
Another challenge? While Cambrian claims it removes between 80% and 90% of pollutants, the water treated with EcoVolt doesn’t meet strict standards necessary to be resold to agricultural customers or to be used as drinking water.
It also faces competition. Stanford, for example, is building its own resource recovery center involving methane fermentation.
The water system’s huge thirst for energy
Technologies like Cambrian’s and Stanford’s could help reduce the huge amounts of energy used to clean, transport and treat water. In California, water use accounts for about 20% of the state’s energy consumption.
“These kinds of technologies need to succeed,” Criddle said. “Right now wastewater treatment is an energy intensive operation, so we want to reverse that, we want to fix it so it’s not just an energy pig.”
Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and private-equity firms are paying more attention to water-related technologies, says Will Sarni, who directs the enterprise water strategy practice at Deloitte Consulting.
“Whenever there is a constraint on resources, that drives innovation,” said Sarni, co-author of the book Water Tech, a 2013 volume that explores business issues and innovations related to water scarcity. “One could argue that water is the best renewable resource. You could keep treating it. What you want to do is just use it as much as possible.”
Laurie Park, a consultant who specializes in the water-energy nexus, said with the drought “front and center” in the west, the state may need to cobble together a variety of solutions.
“What we’re really talking about is getting incremental benefits at the intersection of water and energy that are often overlooked,” Park said. “Anything that reduces [energy use] and makes water more efficient is valuable.”