Cheeseboard fans can turn their noses up at this fromage fact: France’s favourite food spawns a waste disposal issue.
When milk coagulates to make cheese, it separates into solids (curds), with 90% of it becoming liquids (whey), which need to be disposed of. Rich in carbon and minerals such as phosphorous and nitrogen, whey can throw off the natural equilibrium of the ecosystem, leading to oxygen deprivation in fish if dumped in rivers.
While large cheese companies invest in solutions that process whey into food supplement WPC (whey protein concentrate) or whey powder for use in sports drinks and sports bars, for smaller cheesemakers it’s a case of ‘no whey!’ as this isn’t financially realistic.
A power plant has been built in the French Alps by bioenergy company Valbio to generate ‘clean’ electricity from fermented cheese – and help smaller cheesemakers do the same. In Albertville, known for having hosted the 1992 Winter Olympics, they add bacteria to the whey by-product of Beaufort cheese, which causes it to ferment and create a biogas (a mix of carbon dioxide and methane). The gas is fed through an engine that heats water, which then creates electricity. “Whey is our fuel,” Valbio’s Francois Decker told Le Parisien newspaper when the station opened in October 2015. He estimates the plant should generate around 2.8 million kilowatt hours per year – enough for a community of 2,000 people.
Valbio built its first prototype plant 10 years ago. Since then, another 20+ smaller cheese-fuelled plants have been built in Europe and Canada and they are planning more units in Australia, Italy, Brazil and Uruguay. The idea of transforming organic dairy waste into biogas is not a novel one, but this is certainly the cheesiest.
Francois Decker and Yvon Brochet, Valbio