New Belgium Brewing tackles carbon emissions by ditching gas for electric heat-pump boilers

MIT Technology Review has a great article about a new climate initiative from Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing. With help from another local Colorado startup called AtmosZero, New Belgium is replacing one of their natural-gas-powered boil kettles with a new electric boiler that uses heat pump technology.

Indeed, heat production from industry may account for around 10% of global carbon dioxide pollution. The sector relies heavily on steam to transfer heat, sterilize equipment and goods, and separate chemicals. Globally, the practice could generate more than 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year, according to an earlier analysis by Stark and a colleague.


Electric boilers that can draw power mostly from renewables like solar and wind do exist and are already used in manufacturing. But they generally rely on resistive heating, which produces heat by passing an electric current through a conductive material, or the water in the boiler. That sucks up a lot of electricity and pushes up costs, which has prevented such devices from grabbing much market share to date, says Stark, previously a fellow and acting director at ARPA-E, the US Department of Energy's advanced research arm.

Instead, AtmosZero leans on heat pump technology, which uses electricity to circulate refrigerants with low boiling points through a closed loop. The device draws in heat from the surrounding air, uses a compressor to increase the temperature of the refrigerant enough to boil water, and then transfers that thermal energy through a heat exchanger into a vessel that produces steam.

I've written a lot about heat pump technology; it's pretty cool stuff, and should really be used in more places. Here's how I explained it in The New York Times last year:

Heat pumps have only to move heat, instead of generating it by combusting a fuel source. Even the most efficient gas-powered furnace or boiler never converts 100% of its fuel into heat; it's always going to lose something in the conversion process. A good electric-resistance heater gives you 100% efficiency, but it still has to burn watts to produce that heat, whereas a heat pump just moves the heat.


The process is especially efficient, using half as much energy on average than other electric home-heating sources. Or, as David Yuill of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln told us, "You could put in a watt of electricity and get four watts of heat out of it. It's like magic."

3-4 times more efficient than traditional electric radiant heat? Count me in!

New Belgium Brewery is perhaps best known for its popular Fat Tire Ale. But the company has also been highly invested in sustainability initiatives like this. Two years ago, for example, they released a special beer called Torched Earth that was specifically designed "to illustrate what the future of beer will look like if we don't get more companies to commit to aggressive climate action. This beer uses the kind of ingredients that would be available in a climate-ravaged future…and they're less than ideal." :

In place of fresh hops, Torched Earth gets its bitterness and floral aromas from hop extracts and dandelions. The water has been smoked, to mimic the effects of wildfire. In lieu of malted barley, the beer is made with buckwheat and millet, which are more drought-tolerant grains.

If you think that beer would taste like shit, well, that was sort of the point. Hopefully, this heat pump boiler pilot program will help prevent that post-apocalyptic beer future.

How electrifying steam could cut beer's carbon emissions [James Temple / MIT Technology Review]