The company is the second largest dairy manufacturer in New Zealand, processing 10% of all the country's milk. They're also the second largest whole milk powder exporter worldwide. You might think that would make it slower and more difficult to drive changes in the way they operate. But it doesn't seem that way.

At the recent 2021 New Zealand Energy Excellence Awards, they won the EECA-sponsored Large Energy User Award for their work to reduce carbon emissions at their Awarua site near Invercargill.

From coal to zero-carbon

The winning project, a new 13 mega-watt (MW) electrode boiler, is part of Open Country’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction programme that aims to cut down their environmental impact. The new boiler is low emission and powered by renewable energy – including hydroelectric power from Lakes Manapouri, Monowai, and Mataura, and wind from White Hills windfarm. It's also the largest electrode boiler in the Southern Hemisphere providing steam to a milk powder plant.

"Not only does this reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as a source of energy, but reduces our greenhouse gas footprint and contaminants emitted to the air which is critical to our planet." - CEO Steve Koekemoer

The first of its kind worldwide, the boiler provides steam to the site's new spray drying plant, which processes up to an eye-watering 60,000 litres of milk per hour into high quality milk powder for export. On top of this, the new electrode boiler lets Open Country heat cold water to full steam in less than five minutes, compared to six hours with traditional coal-powered boilers. Since installation in September 2020, the new boiler at Awarua has increased the plant's production capacity by 50%, while significantly reducing their emissions per tonne of dairy powder produced.

Partnering with EECA

Spray drying has always been an energy-heavy process and in the past, coal boilers have typically been the most popular option. But the company recognises that consumers are looking for more low-carbon brands, which is why they set out looking for a world-class technology that could improve the footprint of the Awarua site.

EECA has been working with Open Country since 2019, providing advice and support on energy-related projects. At the start of the electrode boiler project, EECA provided $15,000 in funding to help with the feasibility study that determined whether the project was environmentally and economically viable, and a further $200,000 through EECA's Technology Demonstration Fund(external link) to help Open Country carry out the project. The Technology Demonstration Fund supports the early adoption of proven technology or an innovative process improvement that isn't yet well used in New Zealand.

"They wanted to increase their production, so we looked at the options available to Open Country to generate the energy they needed in a renewable way," says Andrew Caseley, EECA Chief Executive.

EECA is also working with Open Country to create an Energy Transition Accelerator (ETA)(external link), which is essentially a plan to help large energy users get away from fossil fuels and improve their energy efficiency. The ETA identifies ways businesses can reduce their energy-related emissions and save on energy costs, both short-term and long-term.

They wanted to increase their production, so we looked at the options available to Open Country to generate the energy they needed in a renewable way.

Andrew Caseley, Chief Executive, EECA

Lessons to be learnt

As the first to apply the new technology on a milk powder plant in this way, Open Country will also be the first to learn and benefit from it. But they hope that over time, other industry players will learn about its benefits. There's certainly no shortage of positive talking points to come out of it.

A few of the benefits

  • a 99.8% efficiency rate for the electrode boiler, compared to the coal boilers' 77%
  • a measured 9,729 tonnes of CO2 saved in one year of operation compared to a coal boiler, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of around 4,000 cars
  • the ability to turn cold water into full steam in under 5 minutes, compared to 6 hours for coal
  • 2,160 fewer hours of maintenance each year
  • 1,867 fewer truck trips of coal annually, saving over 291,252kms of coal transportation
  • fewer chemicals required in the water treatment process.

What else is in the pipeline?

There's plenty going on at Open Country right now to lower their footprint further. In a recent announcement from EECA, the dairy company will receive co-investment for two projects from the first round of the $69m Government Investment in Decarbonising Industry (GIDI) Fund(external link). The projects will convert two of Open Country's coal boilers to use wood pellets and wood chips at its Waharoa site in the Waikato. Combined, the two projects will see Open Country save a combined 820,840 tonnes of CO2 emissions over the project lifetimes.

"The GIDI projects represent deep cuts to Open Country Dairy's emissions, prove the case for fuel-switching towards renewables, have flow-on benefits of better air quality in the region, and help position them in their export markets," says EECA Chief Executive Andrew Caseley.

With the dairy industry being a big part of the New Zealand economy and our largest export sector, sustainable innovations in the industry have the potential to create real impact – for companies, communities, and climate. Open Country has led the charge with their latest project, and it opens the door for others to do the same.