A North East company has been crossing borders to help a drinks manufacturer fulfil its green energy ambitions, in the process adding another unique project to its diverse portfolio.

The newly-built Ncn’ean distillery is doing the traditional differently. From its remote base on the Morvern peninsular in the West Highlands, the company aims to produce whisky in a way that works in harmony with nature, and is believed to be the first wholly organic distillery in Scotland. Their barley is organic, they use their own spring water and the used grain feeds the farm cattle. It was vital that the means of powering this operation also fitted with Ncn’ean’s environmentally friendly ethos

Ncn’ean looked into their options and decided that a woodchip boiler would be ideal for their needs, offering a low carbon footprint, low running costs, and, being in a part of Scotland with plenty of commercial forestry, fuel could be easily transported, minimising both costs and pollution. But there was a catch. Founder of Ncn’ean Annabel Thomas explains that they needed something a little different from the norm.

“Unlike most UK biomass boilers, distilling is an industrial process which requires steam, not just hot water, so it was important to us that we found partners with the right expertise who could deliver a high-quality product that met our specific needs.”

Enter re:heat, Alnwick based biomass energy experts with years of experience in fitting renewable heating systems tailored to their clients’ individual requirements. Travelling to Scotland from his Northumberland base, director Neil Harrison was keen to understand the unique specifications of the unusual Ncn’ean project and the challenges that would be faced in the course of its completion.

Neil says;

“Providing a boiler that would produce steam as well as hot water was probably the easiest part of the brief for me. This is definitely one of the most beautiful locations I’ve worked in but its location also made things tricky in a variety of ways.

“The distillery is located at end of a 22 mile single track road on the Morvern Peninsula, not a situation that’s designed to assist in the delivery of a complex engineering project, and even more difficult to deal with than a project we completed on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, which just shows how awkward access was and how much we had to account for this when carrying out the works.

“There was also no three-phase power on site, which is typically regarded as a minimum requirement for a large biomass boiler, so we had to find a way to work around that, as a problem could then potentially stop the distillery from operating.

“The solution came with an innovative ‘power reduction’ function.  This monitors power consumption across the site, reducing boiler output (and therefore the electrical requirement of the fans and feed system) when it sees a peak in power demand.  This ensures the distillery keeps running and producing whisky, essential in a location with a fragile electrical grid.”

All challenges were met and the 850kW woodchip boiler system has now successfully finished its commissioning and first period of operation, reliably providing low carbon, low cost steam for the distillery since January this year.

In addition to providing process steam, the boiler also heats the distillery office, visitor centre and toilet block, and one of the two whisky maturation sheds. It will save over 230 tonnes of CO2 each year compared to running its oil equivalent.  It will require around 300 tonnes of woodchip annually, all of which is sourced from low grade and unmerchantable timber from the surrounding forestry on the estate, typically travelling no more than 5 miles from where it grows to where it is used. The gathering of fuel for the boiler makes an added contribution to the local rural economy and of course, the whole process supports Ncn’ean’s environmentally friendly philosophy.

Annabel Thomas says:

“All of our energy at Ncn’ean comes from renewable sources and our biomass boiler is the most important part of that. Distilling takes a significant amount of energy and avoiding the use and import of fossil fuels has been central to our plans from day one. We are lucky enough to have a neighbouring forest where we source and chip our wood, and we were equally lucky to have found re:heat and their technology partners, Kolbach and Schmidmeier to install our boiler.

“From the early design stages through installation, commissioning and on-going tweaks to the system, we have found re:heat’s expertise invaluable and commitment to the project unwavering.”

Neil Harrison said:

“This was a really exciting project to be part of and Ncn’ean were great to work with, with a company ethos so in line with our own. We have to thank the main contractor, Taylor and Fraser of Paisley, who provided all the mechanical services in the plant room and the connection to the new distillery – they were a pleasure to work with, and we collectively overcame the many challenges that the project presented.  It’s tremendously satisfying to see the boiler in place and working so well.

“The distillery and the way it operates has contributed to helping the Drimnin Estate win the ‘Helping it Happen’ award in the Rural Business category earlier this year, and we’re delighted that we could play a part in them achieving this recognition. We’re continuing to work with the both the estate and the distillery to help them make the most of the boiler’s capabilities across both businesses.

“There is enormous potential for biomass to play a valuable role in the greener manufacture of food and drinks products, in fact for any organisation where heat is a major factor in the process, allowing companies to both save money and be kinder to the environment. If anyone is not sure where to start or whether the systems could work for them, I’d always say it’s best to get in touch with us and just ask for advice, what do you have to lose?”

Ncn’ean distillery first became operational in March 2017 and the first bottled whisky will be available in 2020, although a few select barrels are already available. If you’d like to know more about them and their unique approach to distilling, visit the website at www.ncnean.com.

re:heat was founded in 2011 by Neil Harrison and Ben Tansey to assist businesses of all sizes convert from fossil fuels to sustainable, low carbon wood fuel heating systems. The firm’s team of experts can help clients with buying a boiler, designing systems, fuel supply logistics and material handling, fault-finding and problem resolution, and specialist training. Find out more at www.reheat.uk.com.