As Scotland's national drink, we produce around 390 million litres of whisky each year.

Whisky is one of the most energy-intensive products in the food and drink sector, using 7 times more energy in its production than gin. The Scottish whisky sector is therefore one which requires targeted decarbonisation if Scotland is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, the target set by the Scottish Government in 2019.

The road to net zero

Earlier this year the sector set its own target to become net zero by 2040. Five years earlier than the national target may be ambitious, but some individual distilleries plan to achieve net zero well before this – Bruichladdich on Islay intends to be net zero by 2025, and impressively, Nc'Nean in Argyll secured the title as the UK's first net zero whisky distillery in July this year.

However, with 72% of distilleries' primary energy use still coming from fossil fuels, there is a long way to go.

The fact that approximately 83% of energy consumption in the sector is used to generate heat for the distillation process, confirms the most significant carbon reductions can be made by switching to an alternative low carbon fuel source.

The challenges

One of the biggest challenges in making that switch is that many whisky producers across Scotland are located in rural areas, off grid and heavily reliant on imports of oil as a source of fuel. Ground source heat pumps, solar panels and wind turbines are all examples of renewable energy generation that can be, and are, used in remote locations. However, the intermittency of renewable electricity generation means that it cannot provide the constant and reliable high levels of heat energy required for distilling.

In addition, the up-front cost of installing new infrastructure and the cost of alternative fuels creates further barriers to change. For example, natural gas remains the cheapest fuel source available for those distilleries with access to the gas grid.

Government assistance

The launch of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) in 2011 enabled a number of distilleries to install biomass boilers and anaerobic digestion plants, some of them using their own draff (a by- product of making whisky). We have supported a number of RHI projects which have achieved significant carbon reductions.

In 2020, the UK Government announced the Green Distilleries Competition, a £10,000,000 fund for feasibility projects to assist distilleries in their low-carbon transition. A number of these feasibility projects explored the use of green hydrogen.

No one-fuel-fits-all

Green hydrogen offers an alternative to fossil fuels. However, its use in rural areas is debatable. Unless being produced on site (through the electrolysis of water using renewables), it is expensive and difficult to transport. There is also some difficultly in sourcing hydrogen, at least for now, due to the fact that the hydrogen market is in its infancy. The cost of hydrogen is another consideration – it is not yet comparable with that of natural gas, but does have the potential to be competitive against the volatile price of importing fuel oil in remote locations.

For the time being, some distilleries are switching from heavy fuel oil to LNG. Although branded the "cleanest fossil fuel", LNG should not be considered a long term solution. It may generate around 20% less CO2 than fuel oil (as well as lower levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and particulate matter) but it is still a fossil fuel.

Biomass is still a credible alternative (despite the recent closure of the RHI scheme) provided it can be delivered at an economic price. The successor to RHI, the UK Government's new Green Gas Support Scheme could see distillers on the gas grid opt for biogas anaerobic digestion plants. However, the subsidy will only be available for surplus green gas which is exported to the gas grid.

Ultimately it is apparent that there is no single alternative energy source for the sector to pursue – each distillery has its own constraints when it comes to system design. In some cases it may be that deploying more than one low carbon technology is the key to maximising performance whilst making strides to meeting the net zero challenge.

A sustainable future

As we head towards 2040, innovation and new technologies will continue to develop, expanding the range of available options. A further phase of funding through the Green Distilleries Competition will see demonstration and further design development of new low carbon solutions. With plans for pioneering and collaborative projects like the Òran na Mara tidal project in the Sound of Islay and the hydrogen fuelled Distilleries Project in the Cromarty Firth, the commitment of the sector to reducing its carbon footprint is clear – and whilst it may be difficult to predict now whether net zero across the sector will be a reality in 2040, one thing we can be confident about is that our Scotch is most definitely on its way to becoming sustainable.

We have experience in advising on all aspects of energy projects. Should you require assistance with your project then please let us know how we can help.


Donna Cooper

Legal Director