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Green whisky: The distilleries turning to hydrogen for net zero in Scotland

25 Jan 2024 • 5 minute read

Green hydrogen could offer an alternative energy for whisky production, ensuring that it contributes to net zero ambitions.

Whisky has been produced in Scotland for centuries. But with the Scottish Government setting ambitious net zero emissions targets, production methods are evolving for whisky. New projects to decarbonise the industry powered by green hydrogen are gaining traction and offer an exciting future for this historic industry.

The importance of clean whisky production

Scotland's whisky industry is worth £6.2 billion to the Scottish economy a year. It accounts for more than 25% of the UK’s total food and drink exports. However, production on this scale also requires huge amounts of energy. Scotland’s 148 distilleries consume around 3.7 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy every year. 
 
While the Scottish Government aims to reach net zero by 2045, the whisky industry seeks to get there five years earlier. To decarbonise by 2040, distilleries must harness zero-emission energy sources. A key solution in this transition will be hydrogen. 
 
The UK Government has acknowledged the importance of the whisky industry and its switch to clean energy by funding several notable hydrogen projects. Such funding is vital considering the high expense involved with developing this new energy source. Crucially, costs are expected to fall as demand grows.

Innovations in whisky manufacturing in Scotland

Project WhiskHy, developed by a consortium headed by Supercritical, is a company dedicated to developing a high-pressure electrolyser to split water into its chemical elements. This type of high-pressure technology is expected to reduce the costs of pressurised hydrogen while maintaining high levels of efficiency. 
 
To help deliver these ambitions, Project WhiskHy has partnered with two Scottish distilleries owned by Beam Suntory. The global spirits producer has committed to halving its emissions from direct operations by 2030. This partnership was made possible through Scottish Enterprise, the national economic development agency of Scotland. 
 
In June 2023, Scottish Enterprise published a comprehensive study into the potential benefits of hydrogen to the Scottish whisky industry. This document is being consulted as the hydrogen sector develops. 
 
Project WhiskHy is now progressing to its second phase. To support this, the UK Department for Business and Trade is providing £2.94 million in funding. Beam Suntory’s Glen Garioch Distillery has been chosen as the site for an experimental scale-up of the electrolyser. In phase one, the electrolyser was used to produce hydrogen from wastewater. In phase two, the aim is to scale up the electrolyser and conduct an industrial hydrogen trial. 
 
Clean hydrogen technology could enable the reintroduction of more traditional processes in whisky production. Direct firing boils the whisky to temperatures as high as 1,000°C. However, this process has been abandoned by many distilleries due to the high carbon impact. Nevertheless, using such intense heat results in increased chemical reactions in the liquid, deepening the flavour profile of the finished whisky. 

It is believed that achieving these intense temperatures with hydrogen for direct firing processes would improve the taste of whisky. In fact, hydrogen can burn even hotter than the methane traditionally used in the distilling process. Beam Suntory expects that achieving higher temperatures in direct firing will further enhance the rich character of its whiskies. 

Examples of the hydrogen economy in action

Other projects exploring the potential of hydrogen are emerging across Scotland. South of Aberdeen, the Arbikie Distillery’s hydrogen energy system aims to change its production methods. The distillery has added a 1 Megawatt wind turbine to supply renewable energy to an electrolyser that will produce hydrogen from wastewater. The project has secured funding for phases one and two from the UK Government. It will be led by Scottish companies Locogen and Logan Energy.
 
Meanwhile, on the Isle of Islay off Scotland’s West coast, the Bruichladdich Distillery project HyLaddie has also secured UK Government funding. Using grid electricity, the distillery aims to power electrolysis to produce hydrogen for a specially equipped boiler. 
 
Even the most remote parts of Scotland are exploring the possibilities of this new technology. Green hydrogen is already powering several buildings in Orkney. The HySpirits 2 project will apply dual fuel technology to the Islands’ whisky industry. The European Marine Energy Centre, Edinburgh Napier University, spirits producer Edrington, and Orkney Distilling are partnering to develop a dual-fuel steam boiler. This solution will provide flexibility in energy sources while hydrogen production scales up.

Industrial demand for hydrogen in Scotland

Scottish business Cochran Boilers is preparing to meet the increasing demand for hydrogen energy. The company is developing a hydrogen-ready boiler to match the capabilities of the fossil fuel boilers it has supplied to distilleries. 
 
Businesses such as these will be essential to the future of hydrogen as demand grows. Currently, a major obstacle to the mass deployment of hydrogen energy is high operating costs. But as demand rises, costs should fall. Many distilleries have chosen to produce hydrogen from renewables on site, for example using wastewater, which drives down operating expenses. 
 
Another potential revenue stream is through the sale of biogenic CO2, a potential byproduct of the hydrogen process. Demand for biogenic CO2 is rising, as it can be used as feedstock in the production of alternative fuels for heavy transportation. 
 
In addition, Scottish Enterprise is supporting the development of 13 low-carbon or renewable hydrogen hubs across Scotland. These hubs will allow distilleries unable to produce hydrogen energy on-site to access reliable supplies. New partnerships are already emerging, such as that between the Cromarty Hydrogen Project and distilleries in Cromarty Firth. It is hoped that the Cromarty project will have a daily green hydrogen production capacity of 20 tonnes by 2025.
 
Feasibility studies have also demonstrated how hydrogen energy hubs could power other industries in the Cromarty area. Industrial uses include local food production, manufacturing, and industrial heating. As clean hydrogen production grows, whisky won’t be the only Scottish product to go green.

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