The EcoVolt: Revolutionizing water management in the brewing industry

The EcoVolt, the world's first bioelectrically enhanced wastewater to energy system (Photo: Cambrian Innovation)

The EcoVolt, the world’s first bioelectrically enhanced wastewater to energy system (Photo: Cambrian Innovation)

Nothing is more important than water in the brewing process. But still, more times than not, water is the one component most overlooked. The Brewers Association (BA) estimates that the average water use ratio for a brewery is around seven barrels of water to one barrel of beer.

More than half of that water becomes wastewater at the end of the brewing process and what to do with that wastewater causes major environmental and economic headaches for breweries across the country.

What is left over after the brewing process is sugar, yeast, and proteins – all of which can wreak havoc on the microbes used by local sewage treatment plants to chew up bacteria and organic waste. If the bacteria is not properly broken down, it can get into rivers and streams, which can cause a variety of environmental problems.

Wastewater removal and treatment is pricy no matter what way you look at it, but especially on top of the natural gas and electricity costs that brewers already face. With many cities implementing water rationing policies and increasing sewer charges, brewers need to think about water management as a critical part of their business plan. The long-term sustainability and growth of a business may depend on the ability to efficiently use water resources, says the BA.

Bear Republic Brewing Co. (Healdsburg, CA) has jumped through hoops and paid pricy wastewater treatment bills for years, but has now implemented a new water treatment system that will largely eliminate the brewery’s sewer and electricity costs. The EcoVolt, a revolutionary system created by Boston-based environmental biotechnology company Cambrian Innovation, breaks down pollutants in wastewater into high quality methane gas, which can be used to generate heat and power.

“Up until now, water treatment has been a huge energy drain and a huge cost strain,” says Cambrian CEO Matt Silver. “The kind of ironic thing is that what you’re trying to treat, the organics, is a residual of the brewing process and actually contains a lot of energy. Our system taps that energy.”

The EcoVolt, has only been in place at Bear Republic since January, but Silver says that the brewery will save 4,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent of planting 3,440 acres of trees or taking 877 cars off the road each year.

“And that’s not just this year, but every year. It is just going to increase as they grow,” says Silver.

One of the great things about the EcoVolt is that it is completely modular, allowing breweries to grow with the system. Cambrian offers three different sizes, the EcoVolt Mini, EcoVolt, and EcoVolt XL. Cambrian also offers leasing options for breweries that want to test it out.

(Photo: Cambrian Innovation)

(Photo: Cambrian Innovation)

So, how does the EcoVolt work? First, wastewater is screened to remove larger particles and solids, and is then sent into an equalization tank to stabilize concentrations and volume. The wastewater is then transferred to the EcoVolt reactors, which use a particular kind of bioelectricity called electromethanogenesis, in which biologically coated electrodes convert organic pollutants into electricity and secondary electrodes convert that electricity into high quality methane fuel. The methane can be used to generate clean heat and power at a facility like a brewery.

“So the net result is that a brewery can actually receive money from their treatment process rather than giving money to their treatment process,” says Silver. “Part of our mission is to eliminate this so-called tension between environment and economics. You can both save money and significantly cut your carbon footprint, you just need new solutions. So that’s why we developed the EcoVolt.”

The treated wastewater that leaves the EcoVolt reactor has had 80-90% of the pollutants removed, allowing for re-use on-site, whether it’s for irrigation, tank washing or production. Even better, the system is completely automated and automatically monitors the health of microbial populations, so brewers don’t have to worry about operating the system.

Cambrian Innovation is a new company, born in 2006 out of Silver’s aerospace degree from MIT and grants from NASA and the USDA. The EcoVolt system is designed to be adaptable and is suited for food and beverage companies like Bear Republic. Since 2006, Cambrian has built hundreds of lab-based pilot systems and installed a demonstration-scale system at Clos du Bois winery in Sonoma County, where it operated almost flawlessly for 18 months. The EcoVolt was released as a product in October 2013.

Bear Republic was the first to officially install the EcoVolt system in January and now Lagunitas Brewing Company (Petaluma, CA), which used to spend $1 million a year shipping its wastewater to Oakland for treatment, has an EcoVolt of its own.

EcoVolt delivery in CA (Photo: Cambrian Innovation)

EcoVolt delivery in CA (Photo: Cambrian Innovation)

“There can be a conception with something that’s new and has an upfront payment that it costs more. The biggest thing I want to drive home is this is an investment to eliminate cost versus almost every other solution on the market, which has a lower initial investment but has an ongoing cost. With [the EcoVolt] you’re getting your money back,” says Silver. “The return on investment is higher than pretty much any system on the market. We are able to give a return anywhere from a year to a year-and-half depending on the brewery.”

Silver would not discuss installation costs when we met over a beer during the Craft Brewers Conference, but emphasized that Cambrian is willing to work with brewers to figure out what they need rather than to just sell it to them. Cambrian is also offering water management services to help business owners develop a water management plan and learn how to approach water re-use.

“I think craft brewers are very conscious of economics, which they need to be, but they’re also interested in doing things differently and they have the potential to show the way towards an infrastructure that doesn’t pit economics against environment,” says Silver. “Lagunitas has a good motto: ‘Let’s get the oil out of beer,’ and I think that resonates with a lot of people. Our mission is to solve climate change problems and make life easier for breweries that are growing.”

No breweries in Colorado have adopted Cambrian’s technology, but that’s not to say we won’t see the EcoVolt locally in the next few years. Several breweries have already begun to implement energy conservation methods and re-use programs. New Belgium Brewing Company, for example, invested in heat exchangers and energy storage tanks to decrease the brewery’s energy needs and installed a Smart Grid to help reduce electricity consumption and decrease costs.

New Belgium has also installed an on-site Process Water Treatment Plant which uses microbes to convert wastewater pollutants into methane-rich biogas much like the EcoVolt. However, New Belgium’s system only provides for 15% of the brewery’s electricity needs.

In Colorado, water shortage is a real thing. We are no strangers to water restrictions, drought, and wildfires. Denver is at the forefront of the green energy and sustainability movement and all Coloradans love nature. So, it shouldn’t be long before one of our breweries implements the EcoVolt to conserve water, reduce pollutants, and decrease energy needs. The question is, what brewery will be first?

About Sarah Haughey

Editor, Denver off the Wagon. Sarah is a native of the "Napa Valley of beer," but her beer-drinking roots stretch all the way back to the Emerald Isle where Haughey (Haw-hee) is famous. Sure, our name may have got it's rap from the corrupt prime minister, but we like to think it stands strong due to our long-standing ability to pound a few too many pints. After stints on the East Coast and in San Francisco, Sarah came running back to Denver where her full-time job is exploring all the city's new craft breweries one sip at a time. Follow me @sarahhaughey4 to see where I'm grabbing a beer or for news about local breweries. Like to cook? Me too, check out: