Backsberg ups its game

Part of a 10ha plantation of prickly pears, that will provide the feedstock for an anaerobic bio-gas digester, which will make Backsberg Estate Cellars in Paarl, energy self-sufficient.

Since being recognised as the first carbon neutral winery in South Africa, and the third in the world in 2006, some things have changed, and some have remained the same, at Backsberg Estate Cellars, on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Paarl.

“Our underlying philosophy has not changed at all. We work as hard as possible to conserve energy – electrical, liquid propane gas, petrol and diesel – and we offset what we can’t conserve,” says estate owner Michael Back.

We’re sitting in the restaurant at Backsberg, where we had a similar discussion seven and a half years ago, when Bolander first reported on this achievement (“Backsberg puts down its carbon footprint”, Bolander May 13, 2009), and Michael’s passion for reducing, reusing and recycling is as evident now as it was then.

“If you look at a numerical comparison over the years, it appears we’ve made no improvement (in further reducing our carbon footprint). In fact it looks a lot worse, but that’s because the business has grown, so we’ve used more electricity for example. This is not like running an industrial complex, with units in and units out, and no dependence on the weather,” says Michael. “It makes more sense to interrogate a single area and determine whether or not we’ve made progress.”

“For example, we’re using a biomass furnace, which runs on wood chips from a local sawmill, to generate erate chilled water through a heat exchange process,” he says. “It’s not a commonly applied technology, but it holds huge potential. Also, it is not reliant on sunlight for the creation of process heat.”

Initially, red wine fermentation temperatures were controlled by reticulating cold water from dams on the estate to the cellar. Now, this new, more energy-efficient source of chilled water is used.

“Also, since we now cold-soak our red wines, the amount of cooling in red wine ferments has actually gone down,” says Michael, a further example of energy efficiency.

An Australian eucalyptus plantation on the estate, part of a joint study with the University of Stellenbosch to identify the most suitable varietal to plant at the optimum density to get the optimum calorific value for use as a renewable energy resource, is now serving another purpose. “We need about 4 500 poles for use in the vineyards. Rather than buying those from somewhere else, we’re cutting trees for our own forest, and treating them on site. That way, we avoid using too any harmful chemicals, and there is zero carbon footprint for transporting the poles,” says Michael.

Then there is the story of the polystyrene ceiling panels in the cellar that were removed while Michael was overseas. “I wanted the panels to be removed whole, so that I could use them elsewhere, but when I arrived back, I saw they had been removed in small pieces,” says Michael. “I wouldn’t let them be dumped, so I stored them behind the winery for two years, and they were recently reused as insulation in another ceiling.”

This is what Michael calls a cradle to cradle, as opposed to a cradle to grave approach. “When something you buy is no longer needed for its original purpose, you find another use for it, and possibly even a third,” he says.

The lyre system of vineyard trellising, pioneered earlier, is bearing great dividends, as Michael explains: “It gives you more running metres of canopy per hectare, and less running metres of tractor road, which translates into lower fuel consumption.”

Michael has also turned his attention to water conservation.

“We have eight odd hectares of dams on the farm, and we lose between 800mm and one metre of water to evaporation a year.

“I’m working with a group of people to find an inexpensive fabric to cover the dams, to cut down on evaporation,” says Michael, adding that once the project is completed, it will conserve about 80 000 cubic metres of water each year, sufficient to irrigate 32ha of vineyards.

“It’s a long-term project. We’ll start with one hectare a year, and in about three or four years we’ll hit the tipping point, and we’ll start to make greater savings.”

There is much more underway on the farm but perhaps the most exciting initiative, as yet in its infancy, is Michael’s plan to make Backsberg entirely energy self-sufficient – with prickly pears.

“We’re going to put in an anaerobic bio-gas digester,” explains Michael, “and the feedstock will be prickly pears. Not the fruit, but the fleshy leaves, which have a very high calorific value.”

The process generates mostly methane gas, when anaerobic organisms digest the feedstock – in this case prickly pear leaves – in a closed system which excludes all oxygen.

“The methane gas can be burned to generate process heat, or it can drive a gas turbine too generate electricity,” says Michael.

“The gas can also be liquefied and stored, or sold. Unlike sunlight, feedstock for a digester is available all the time, not only when the sun shines.”

Later, while driving around the farm with Simon, Michael’s son, we visit the prickly pear plantation. “Once we have 10ha planted, we’ll have enough feedstock to take care of all our electricity needs,” says Simon.

As we conclude the farm tour, we pass a series of structures where workers are busily shovelling what looks like some form of organic waste, into plastic containers. “That’s our Black Soldier Fly project,” says Simon. “It’s a new project we’ve embarked on. We breed the flies, and the maggots are fed on organic waste, and they are then dehydrated to form a rich source of protein, which can be used a feed for chickens, pigs, ducks, birds and farmed fish.”

The facility will eventually produce one ton of product a day – dehydrated maggots – from 20 tons of organic waste, which would otherwise end up in a landfill.

It becomes apparent in the conversation that what Michael started all those years back, has become ingrained in the culture of Backsberg, but when asked how well the culture is embraced, he pauses, then answers: “We still have work to do, to get it down to every level. By way of example, I love to travel overseas, and used to do so every six months, but now I only go once every nine months because of the carbon footprint.

“But how do you justify to somebody who perhaps has never even been to the airport or perhaps owns a car for the first time, the kind of sacrifices needed? There is a tension between the social perspective and the environmental perspective. We need to, in this whole environmental debate, promote moderation among the haves, and aspiration among the have-nots.”