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Green gassy Islay: Could hydrogen be the solution to the distilleries’ energy consumption?

Publication: Ileach

Adam Hannet at the stage addressing the public.
Adam Hannett at RocknDaal Festival Photo by Protium | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

The trail towards net-zero carbon emissions offers several possibilities. Still, for Islay, as one of the six islands nominated to become carbon neutral by 2040, the problem is a large one.

Per head of population, Islay is reputed to have the highest usage of fossil fuels in the country, by dint of the requirements of the island’s distilleries. If a solution is to be found, that’s surely the most obvious starting point.

Bunnahabhain Distillery has already contracted the services of Dallol to operate a bio-mass plant on their behalf. However, the wood supply from the Rhinns is already causing an appreciable level of disquiet (see last issue).

In January 2021, Bruichladdich Distillery announced the receipt of funding from the Small Business Research Initiative Green Distilleries Competition to explore the possibilities of utilising hydrogen to provide energy for their distilling procedures.

The £70,000 of funding was awarded to their project partner, Protium Green Solutions, enabling a feasibility study (HyLaddie) on the process.

Phase one of this study was intended to explore the installation of an on‐site Deuterium Dynamic Combustion Chamber (DCC) as a viable mechanism to meet heating requirements.

Protium was then to explore how the DCC could be integrated while considering the preservation of centuries-old equipment, safeguarding spirit quality and the impact on the local community.

Phase one ended in 2021, and Protium is still investigating the future possibilities of hydrogen usage in the distilling process.

Bunnahabhain Destillery front building
Bunnahabhain Destillery Photo by Eberhard Kaiser | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Meanwhile, in August last year, Arbikie Distillery near Montrose in East Scotland announced it was to install a green hydrogen energy system at the distillery, comprising a 1 MW wind turbine, electrolyser, hydrogen storage and hydrogen boiler system.

Co-owner of Arbikie, John Stirling, said:

“We aim to be one of the world’s most sustainable distilleries, so being able to use green hydrogen power will be another significant step on our sustainability journey.”

And as a token demonstration of hydrogen’s versatility as a power source, Protium arranged for hydrogen fuel cells to power Bruichladdich’s Masterclass with Head Distiller Adam Hannett, an event attended by 280 whisky enthusiasts. Hydrogen was also utilised in the festival food court, providing power to multiple food trucks and stalls at the recent Laddie Fèis Ìle Open Day.

‘Green’ Hydrogen production and delivery

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell, similar to a battery, to produce electricity, water, and small amounts of heat.

Following the successful deployment of the technology at ‘Rockn’daal, the Ileach spoke to Jordan Amir-Hekmat, Project Manager at Protium, to enquire about future plans.

For instance, would the distillery need to install hydrogen storage facilities on-site, and how would the hydrogen be delivered?

Mr Amir-Hekmat clarified potential plans to power Bruichladdich with hydrogen in the future by informing us that the intention was to construct an off-site hydrogen production plant on the island, thus minimising any transport issues and substantially reducing the distillery’s on-site storage requirements. Mr Amir-Hekmat said:

“We are exploring the potential of creating ‘green’ hydrogen using renewable energy to supply the distillery.”

Quite how that renewable energy would be generated is just one aspect of Protium’s continued investigations.”

Mr Amir-Hekmat continued:

“One way to do this is removing the existing fuel oil boiler and replacing it with one capable of using hydrogen as its fuel source.”

Bruichladdich confirmed they are exploring the feasibility of installing a hydrogen boiler with Protium’s support.

Bruichladdich Distillery front
Bruichladdich Distillery. Photo by Tom Richardson | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Unsurprisingly, the cost of building and operating a hydrogen production plant is not cheap, but it’s a singular cost that the distillery will not directly have to bear. According to Mr Amir-Hekmat, Protium will finance the development of the facility, reclaimed through annual payments from their customers.

Protium indicated that, since the hydrogen plant would be of modular construction, it would not be a problem to ramp up production should other island distillers opt to join the party.

However, guaranteed sales over a long period would need to be guaranteed for the project to remain financially viable, with Bruichladdich remaining the lead partner in the project.

The hydrogen-powered Rock’ndaal proceeded with scarcely a hitch, the hydrogen powering the fuel cells and charging batteries to smooth out any power fluctuations.

Bruichladdich CEO, Douglas Taylor, told the Ileach:

“The plan to use alternative fuel sources at Bruichladdich Distillery actually started back in 2010 when the team trialled the potential of using an anaerobic digester to create green electricity. While we were unable to make a success of this at the time due to the scale of our business, our commitment to sustainability has not wavered.

“Energy & Emissions remains a key pillar of our sustainability strategy today (alongside Agriculture & Biodiversity, Packaging & Waste and Islay & Community). We are working to find greener alternatives to medium fuel oil. Finding a tangible solution on Islay has its challenges, but we remain optimistic that we can eventually decarbonise our operations on site.

“We welcomed around 2,500 people to Rock’ndaal this year, one of our biggest festival days to date. To power the masterclass and food court with green hydrogen energy is another significant step on our sustainability journey, and we are pleased to make this progress with Protium.”

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