The backstory of Death's Door Spirits—a Middleton-based maker of distilled spirits—is a classic example of how a great idea backed by long hours and a company-first passion turned a bootstrap operation into a business success story. But this tale has a 21st-century twist: sustainability.
Since Death's Door was founded in 2007, it's made a commitment to run as sustainably as possible. "Our initial vision was to be a leader in all aspects of business, from our product to our industry practices to our participation in the community," said Brian Ellison, president of Death's Door and one of its original founders.
To that end, Death's Door integrated sustainable business practices into each stage of sourcing and production. And when sales levels justified bringing manufacturing in-house in 2012, the company worked hard to sustain that commitment in its new facility.
But the company faced a challenge. "As a small start-up distillery, it was initially difficult to convince our financial partners that planning for energy-efficient equipment and building made good economic sense in terms of extended savings and long-term ROI," said Ellison.
Enter MGE and the Shared Savings program.
MGE's Shared Savings program helps companies finance energy-saving equipment at an affordable interest rate.
"Customers tell us that this program makes a big difference," said Jim Mohrbacher, business development manager of MGE. "It helps them avoid dipping into their line of credit and gives them credibility with their other financial partners."
The customer or their contractor provides a project cost estimate for the energy-efficient equipment. MGE collaborates with the owner and their contractors to estimate the energy savings that the project can create.
If the project meets MGE's Shared Savings qualifications, MGE will finance an agreed-upon portion of the project's up-front costs.
The funds can be used to cover equipment, materials, labor and related indirect costs. Energy savings help to repay the project cost, and the monthly loan payment is rolled directly into the customer's MGE utility bill. The customer chooses how to allocate their energy savings, but ultimately, after the loan is repaid, all energy savings go directly into the customer's pocket.
"With our local utility stepping in and not only encouraging but also agreeing to finance these improved alternatives, it was a slam dunk," said Ellison.
"We are very happy to partner with Death's Door," said Randy Popp, senior engineer at MGE. "They clearly have a strong commitment to sustainability, and we're pleased with the opportunity to support energy-efficient practices in the greater Madison area."
A wide range of facility and equipment choices prove the importance of sustainability at Death's Door. Before work began, an MGE team did an initial assessment of the proposed plant site that reviewed lighting, HVAC and building shell and made recommendations based on general energy efficiency standards.
Then, the fun began: choosing manufacturing and production equipment. As experts in distilling, Death's Door researched and chose the equipment to best meet its production needs.
MGE evaluated the equipment based on the performance relative to industry standard practice. Several choices far exceeded production equipment norms and they were targeted for Shared Savings funding.
Johnny Jeffery, head distiller at Death's Door, called the boilers "the life blood" of the production process. "When you're distilling, one of the influences on a product is the quality of the base inputs. We set out to find a boiler that would deliver consistently high-quality steam in the most energy-efficient way possible as a way to protect our brand equity."
That search led the Death's Door team to Japanese manufacturer, Miuria. This company offered a 4.4 MBTU boiler that only required a 50-gallon reservoir (versus the more common 300- to 500-gallon sizes). It allowed the company to go from zero to steam in just nine minutes vs. the four-to-five hour time that most units required.
"Other systems use fire tube technology," said Jeffery. "You need a footprint the size of a school bus to accommodate them. Plus, you need another school bus-equivalent space to pull out the tubes and clean off the scale and deposits."
The Miuria units gave the company access to on-demand steam, which saves energy, time and manpower—no one has to be at the facility four hours early to get the boilers up and running. The units run on affordable natural gas, reduce chemical costs by two-thirds and create water with a lower pH level.
"This means fewer scale and calcification issues, which helps to ensure the energy efficiency of the system," Jeffery said.
Estimated annual savings: Boilers: 18,745 therms and $9,372 in energy costs.
To optimize its energy use, the company captures heat at two points along the production process:
Captured heat is then fed back into the processor water and used for cleaning, sanitation and process water makeup.
"Most companies would just pour this water down the drain," said Jeffery. "Not only are we saving water, we're also saving energy. Instead of starting with 55 degree city water, we're starting with 107 degree water."
Estimated annual savings: 12,229 therms and $8,462 in energy costs.
The facility was designed with both process flow and airflow in mind. Areas are partitioned with a combination of insulated walls and insulated core doors, with roll-up doors for forklift traffic and "man doors" for foot traffic.
"Instead of one big warehouse, we compartmentalized our spaces to conserve energy in both lighting and heating, while at the same time providing sensible barriers for keeping our processing areas clean," Ellison said.
Each bay is outfitted with 7.5-ton high-efficiency HVAC units—the size of each bay varies depending on its use. Three of the HVAC systems are new and equipped with economizers for make-up air. Powerful destratification and exhaust fans also help with temperature management.
"The process of turning grain into distillate produces a lot of heat and humidity," said Jeffery. "The hot air rises to the ceiling and a large circulation fan placed at that level turns the air over six times an hour, with the exhaust fans keeping it from getting steamy. This is key to both temperature control and humidity control, which is important both for employee comfort and product quality."
Daylighting is common throughout the facility. The company made windows a prominent feature in the 2,800 square feet of office space in the facility, but the most dramatic use is in the cupola space above the still columns.
"Two sides have windows which brings a tremendous amount of passive light to the center of the facility," Jeffery said. "Sunlight on all of our copper and stainless equipment is pretty fantastic."
The company upgraded to high-efficiency lighting fixtures in the restrooms and office areas and added motion-sensing devices throughout. In the production areas, halide fixtures were replaced with new ballasts and high-efficiency fluorescent lamps and fixtures, also with motion- and light-detection features.
"These are a great alternative to what we had in the past in terms of efficiency, operation and comfort. Now we have fewer fixtures and more light," Jeffery said.
Outdoors, LEDs were the lighting option of choice.
"We put these in our sign and in our flagpole light. Not only are they cost efficient, they also help us meet Middleton's clear skylighting restrictions," said Ellison.
Estimated annual savings: 63,668 kWh and $5,730 in energy costs.