by Mark Stell, founder and managing partner of Portland Roasting Coffee

At Portland Roasting Coffee, sustainability is part of our DNA. Like many other socially responsible coffee companies, we’ve long been involved with fair trade and environmental initiatives aimed at raising living standards for growers and preserving water quality and biodiversity in the areas where coffee beans are grown and processed. We’ve also embraced direct trade to develop long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with growers, an approach that provides us with the high-quality product we need and allows more money to make its way back to local growers’ communities.

But while global awareness is absolutely critical in an industry that deals with products grown primarily in developing countries, we also need to be conscious of what we can do to make our own operations more sustainable right here at home. We’re proud of our track record as a carbon-neutral company, a status we’ve maintained since 2007 thanks to initiatives such as extensive recycling and composting programs, biodiesel delivery vehicles, incentives for eco-friendly commuting, and the use of energy-efficient roasting equipment. And we’ve recently discovered new technology that will allow us to take a big step forward in that last category.

An energy-guzzling roasting process

Coffee is not typically thought of as a particularly “dirty” business, but the traditional roasting process relies on large industrial coffee roasters with blue-flame burners that consume a great deal of energy and produce large quantities of noxious gas emissions and waste heat.

Portland Roasting Coffee took a first step toward addressing this issue last year by purchasing a new 210-kilo Diedrich roaster with a catalytic oxidizer. The catalytic oxidizer serves the same function as a traditional afterburner – which eliminates noxious gas emissions by vaporizing smoke, converting the emissions into clean water vapor and eliminating pollutants – but it burns at half the temperature and uses only half as much natural gas.

The purchase of this new roaster led us to Cool Energy, a company from Boulder, Colorado, that designs heat-capturing power generators. Although the catalytic oxidizer on our roaster runs cooler than a traditional afterburner, it still produces significant heat, which is wasted energy that could be harnessed and put to productive use.

The waste-heat-to-power solution

Cool Energy is customizing its ThermoHeart Engine heat-recovery system to attach to the oxidizer, which will allow us to convert the waste heat into electricity. The waste-heat-to-power 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. That’s enough to power our entire operation and could even allow us 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, which, together with the energy savings, will allow us to recover our investment in about seven years.

We installed the new roaster in 2015 but plan to wait until 2017 to install the power conversion engine, as further incentives may become available through the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, which is currently working its way through Congress. This bill 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. We’ve been working with the Heat Is Power Association, a nonprofit trade group, to push for this change. If the bill passes, we could realize an additional 30 percent savings. Even if no additional incentives materialize, though, we will still be significantly reducing our energy bills and our carbon footprint.

An opportunity to be a pioneer

No other coffee roaster is using waste-heat-to-power technology yet, but we are committed to looking for new ways to make our business more sustainable, and we hope others in the industry – and other industries – will embrace the solution if our project is successful.

When our system is fully implemented in 2017, we expect to be able to double our coffee production capacity while remaining carbon neutral. That’s good for us, good for coffee drinkers and good for the planet.

Mark Stell, founder and managing partner of Portland Roasting Coffee, developed a deep appreciation for coffee growers and their commitment and love of the land during his travels to coffee-producing countries. His vision was to build a coffee roasting company that made coffee personal – that linked the company’s service in coffee-growing regions to the coffee drinkers in communities back home. Stell’s leadership has earned the company local and national recognition for its business achievements and sustainability initiatives, and Portland Business Journal recognized Portland Roasting Coffee as one of Portland’s fastest-growing private companies for five years running. When not traveling or managing his team, Stell retreats with family to his cabin in the shadow of Mount Adams and tries to sneak in a fly-fishing trip here and there.

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