The small French city of Albertville is nestled in the mountains along the border between France and Italy and is powered in part by cheese. Though some may argue many of the French people are powered by cheese, Albertville’s power is actual electricity. The new biogas plant uses a by-product of the regionally produced Beaufort cheese to generate energy, reports David Chazen for The Telegraph.
When cheesemakers create an aged cheese like Beaufort, the first steps produce salts, minerals, proteins and a lot of whey—a yellowish liquid that contains most of the water found in the starter milk. Whey often ends up in lots of other food products. But in a cheese-making region, there can be a lot of extra whey, and because of the salt, the watery liquid isn’t easily disposed. Albertville’s energy company, EDF, has found the solution.
The new power plant, which opened in October, takes the whey leftover from cheesemaking and ferments it to produce methane gas. That gas fuels an engine that heats water, which generates electricity to the tune of 2.8 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) each year, or enough to power a community of 1,500, Chazen reports. Albertville’s residents numbered around 19,000 in 2012.
While Albertville’s plant isn’t the first cheese-powered station, it is the largest. The first cheese-based power plant Valbio designed was next to an abbey that had been making cheese since the 12th century, Chazen reports. The company has helped to create about 20 other small plants around Europe and Canada.
Whey from greek yogurt production in the U.S. also generates electricity: A Fage yogurt plant in Upstate New York sends some of its whey to a methane digester to power the yogurt plant.
At Bustle, Julie Sprinkles points out a few other places that are using food as fuel. In New Zealand people can drive cars powered by yeast left over from beer brewing, researchers at Virginia Tech are working to convert sugar into hydrogen to create fuel cells, and United Airlines is making biofuel from food waste.
A community powered by cheese may sound like the most French thing possible, but someday soon it could be a solution spread around the world.