About 50 miles north of San Francisco, a brewery is quietly using a new type of technology, originally created to be used on a space station, to clean 50,000 gallons of dirty wastewater a day and generate energy in the process.
At the back of the brewery of Lagunitas Brewing Company, in Petaluma, Calif., three large shipping containers house an unusual design of electrically-charged microbes that consume pollutants in beer wastewater and generate usable biogas. The technology was created by an MIT-spinout called Cambrian Innovation, which is beginning to grow its customer list considerably in Northern California.
One of the most common observations fielded by wastewater treatment startup Cambrian Innovation after sales visits with prospective customers: “If you could only install this and operate this for us, we’d be ready to go.”
Founder and CEO Matt Silver took those comments to heart. Over the past six years, he quietly hired a team of financial whizzes to figure out how to make it far simpler to buy his company’s EcoVolt technology, a system that cleans industrial wastewater and converts the recovered materials into renewable biogas.
The result: a financing model that borrows from the principles of the power purchase agreements that many corporate renewable buyers are using to invest in solar and wind power resources. Cambrian calls its financing option a water-energy purchase agreement, or WEPA, if you prefer. It launched a $30 million fund in late 2015 to invest in the idea.
Why buy when you can lease? Over the years, makers of everything from sewing machines to SUVs have relied on this type of pay-as-you-go financing to spur sales. The entrepreneur who pioneered the no-money-down formula for rooftop solar systems now wants to help spread it to other cleantech industries.
Recognizing that the process of making beer is resource- and water-intensive, Jackson wanted to set a strong example of mitigating environmental impacts from the start.
“We are trying to be the best industrial brewery in terms of water conservation in the world,” Jackson said.
The centerpiece of its sustainability program is the Cambrian Innovation EcoVolt MINI, which converts about 95 percent of wastewater into potable water. Though that water can’t legally be used for brewing, there’s plenty of use for it in cleaning and in the boiler feed. Beer brewing is famously a guzzler: It typically requires seven to eight gallons of water to produce a gallon of beer. Seismic aims to get that ratio to 2:1.
Solar power took off because solar panels got cheaper and better, and because state and federal governments have helped subsidize the industry. But those aren’t the only reasons. A big part of solar’s success has come from new financial models, like solar leases and power purchase agreements (PPA), which save end-users from having to buy equipment upfront.
Now other environmental industries are hoping to copy solar’s success.
Boston-based Cambrian Innovation, which makes a modular wastewater treatment system for food and beverage plants, has come up with something called a water-energy purchase agreement (WEPA). Like a solar PPA, it saves users from startup costs and effectively turns infrastructure into a service. Plant owners pay a monthly fee based on the amount of wastewater going through the system, and in return they get clean (or nearly clean) water and energy in the form of methane, which can either be burned for heat, or converted to electricity. Cambrian’s EcoVolt product, which comes in a cargo container, is basically a supercharged anaerobic digester.
Cambrian Innovation today said that Lagunitas Brewing Company will be the first customer to use its water-energy purchase agreement (WEPA).
Under the WEPA, which Cambrian says is a first for the industrial wastewater treatment industry, Lagunitas will use Cambrian’s EcoVolt product to treat its wastewater onsite, producing recycled water and clean energy to use at its Azusa, California brewery, which will open early next year. The brewery will pay a monthly fee and zero money down for the wastewater treatment and renewable energy generation as a service.
By reducing its utility bills and eliminating its off-site wastewater hauling and treatment costs, Cambrian estimates the WEPA will save the brewery $22.5 million over the 20-year contract.
Water is power. The world needs it. Water is also beer, which the world also needs. All breweries understand this, especially a brewery like Russian River Brewing Co., which literally gains its name, inspiration and flavor from that Russian River. In order to keep these standards of flavor quality and sustainability high as the brewery expands, it has turned to Cambrian Innovation, a biotechnology company solving critical resource challenges for the industry.
“Sustainable production is really important to us,” says Natalie, “and we want to ensure that we remain conscious of our environmental impact as we grow. The EcoVolt solution will cut our carbon and water footprints, ensuring that if we do choose to further increase production, we also give back to the environment.”
It looks like the sustainability engine of the future is going to keep chugging along, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. The latest case in point is the US brewing industry. Breweries of all sizes have been investing in high efficiency equipment that cuts down their wastewater while producing usable products including methane gas, potable water and biosolids. That trend is not likely to change any time soon.
That’s because US breweries — especially urban breweries — need to think ahead if they’re going to continue growing in an era of water scarcity and aging wastewater treatment facilities.
Bear Republic Brewing Co., a family-owned brewery known for its IPAs and environmental stewardship, and Cambrian Innovation, a biotechnology company solving critical resource challenges for industry, sent over some info on the successful, long-term operation of the world’s first industrial-scale, bioelectrically-enhanced wastewater treatment solution.