Powering French Homes With Cheese

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Because everyone loves the Big Cheese.

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Charles de Gaulle asked back in 1962, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” But maybe the famed general — who led Free France during World War II and founded the country’s Fifth Republic — should have been pondering how fermenting fromage might help fire up his beloved France.

Fifty-four years later, de Gaulle’s baguette-waving, wine-swilling countrymen draw about 75 percent of their electricity from nuclear power — a rate they aim to reduce to 50 percent by 2025, according to the World Nuclear Association. It won’t be easy, but efforts like this might help get them there:

Cheesy waste is now being used to provide electricity to 1,500 homes in the southeastern French town of Albertville, home of the 1992 Winter Games.

All cheese manufacturing produces whey, which Albertville’s new and innovative Savoie Lactée plant turns into biogas to make energy that is then sold to France’s national power firm, EDF — a dream for tree-hugging turophiles, aka cheese lovers. The Savoie region’s Beaufort cheese farmers, together with French engineering firm Valbio, launched this 13-million-euro whey-protein factory last summer.

Created in 1965, the Union of Beaufort Producers works with local farmers on quality assurance and to help maintain farming in mountain areas and meet technical challenges. “It is with this strong commitment that [our] Albertville unit was thought,” says Yvon Bochet, UPB’s president, noting how they first thought of opening the whey processing plant back in 2009. The notion stemmed from concern over manufacturing waste, as well as the regional economy: Savoie Lactée has already created 10 local jobs.

The Valbio unit enables them to recycle the whey permeate and white wastewater. Et qu’est-ce que ça veut dire? First, milk is used to make the Beaufort cheese, which leaves behind whey and cream. The process “gets the most elements from whey as possible,” Valbio CEO François Decker says, explaining how they first make butter, ricotta cheese and protein powders before producing biogas with the rest. This entails taking the leftover skimmed whey from the cheese-making process, adding bacteria and waiting for natural fermentation to create methane that’s then used to heat water and generate electricity. By doing this, the Albertville plant is churning out an estimated 3 million kilowatt-hours annually — enough energy to power 1,500 average European homes — and selling the electricity to EDF. The hot water and steam from the process is then returned to the factory to aid manufacturing.

The Beaufort bunch aren’t the only ones getting in on the cheese-waste game, but it’s the biggest one of its type in France. Such a big “project on a single site is unique in France and Europe,” says the Beaufort Defense Union’s Maxime Mathelin. And Valbio, which specializes in industrial food-waste treatment, is a leader in the field. Decker says his firm already has 25 plants like the one in Albertville in other parts of France and abroad, including countries like Canada and Bulgaria, and it’s recently opened a whey recovery plant near Turin, Italy.

And as though 246 varieties of cheese weren’t enough to play with, the firm is also working on a fruit and vegetable waste plant in southern France.

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