Coffee is power.
We’re likely all familiar with the beverage’s drag-yourself-out-of-bed kind of power, or the p.m. pick-me-up-to-make-it-to-bedtime variety.
But Portland Roasting Coffee aspires to be the first coffee company in the U.S. that harnesses the heat from its coffee roasters to power its entire operation, possibly even selling energy back to the grid someday soon.
“People don’t necessarily think of coffee as a 'dirty' business, but the traditional roasting process does involve large industrial coffee roasters with blue-flame burners that consume a lot of energy and produce large quantities of noxious gas emissions and waste heat,” says Mark Stell, Portland Roasting’s founder and managing partner.
Already carbon-neutral since 2007 thanks to energy-efficient roasting equipment, composting and recycling programs, biodiesel delivery vehicles and alternative commuting incentives, Stell said the company is always ferreting out ways to be even more sustainable and further distance itself from competitors, many of whom sell Fair Trade coffee and engage in some level of social and environmental equity.
Last year, Portland Roasting made progress in that arena, by buying a 210-kilo Diedrich roaster with a catalytic oxidizer. The oxidizer works like a traditional afterburner, eliminating noxious gas fumes by vaporizing smoke, converting emissions into clean water vapor and removing pollutants. But Stell says it burns at half the temperature and uses only half as much natural gas.
That purchase brought Portland Roasting to Cool Energy, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that designs heat-capturing power generators. Stell says that although the new oxidizer now runs cooler than a traditional afterburner, it still produces significant heat, which is wasted energy that can be harnessed and put to productive use.
Cool Energy started out in 2006 developing small, residential heat recovery devices for solar thermal applications, but the market quickly changed with the advent of solar voltaics. In 2011, the company began pursuing commercial applications.
“One of our primary targets is the pollution control market because all of these industries – petroleum, manufacturing, refineries, steel mills and more – generate heat and fumes harmful to the atmosphere,” says Sam Weaver, Cool Energy CEO and founder. Portland Roasting Coffee’s engine is set to be delivered in early 2017.
Cool Energy is customizing its ThermoHeart Engine heat-recovery system to attach to the oxidizer, which will allow Portland Roasting to convert the waste heat into electricity. That process requires no additional fuel and releases no incremental emissions, and the power conversion engine can convert waste heat between 150 and 400 degrees Celsius into 25 kilowatts of clean electricity. Stell says that’s enough to power the company’s entire operation, and could even allow it to sell energy back to the grid.
To help fund the $70,000 project, Portland Roasting Coffee received a $20,000 incentive from Energy Trust of Oregon. That, together with the energy savings, will allow the company to recover its investment in about seven years.
Stell says he is waiting until 2017 to install the power conversion engine, as further incentives may become available through the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, currently pending in Congress. That measure would allow waste-heat-to-power technology to be added to the federal definition of renewable energy, making additional investment tax credits available to manufacturers.
Currently, the federal tax code allows incentives for better-known technologies, like solar, and fails to anticipate, newer, lesser known technologies, according to the Heat is Power Association, a non-profit trade group. The effect has been to establish an energy landscape dominated by preferred technologies that receive tax support, while newer, and sometimes even more beneficial technologies, receive no tax incentives and are unable to gain a foothold in the marketplace. The association says to date waste heat to power is one of those overlooked technologies.
Stell has been working with HPA to advocate for this change. If the bill passes, Portland Roasting could realize an additional 30 percent savings. Even if no additional incentives materialize, though, Stell says the company will still be significantly reducing its energy bills and its carbon footprint.
“When you’re roasting, you create enough, or more power than you need, but (Portland General Electric) isn’t even required (by government mandates) to talk to us about any of our power going back on the grid. We have to burn it off, if there’s any excess,” Stell says. “But think about it. There are more than 150 coffee roasters in the state. Imagine how small our carbon footprint could be if we all were able to become energy independent, except for natural gas. That could change some lives.”