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Which cheese produces more electricity: Brie or Beaufort?

Once they're done making cheese, French producers are contributing a key component to producing alternative energy. 

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    Graham Achter from St. Cloud, Wis., carrying aged cheddar cheese as he helps his mom buy cheese inside at a store.
    Sue Pischke/Herald-Times Reporter/AP/File
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French cheesemakers, long known for their versatility, have now come up with a new dish: electricity.

A new power plant in Albertville, a town in the French Alps, is the latest to use the leftover whey from the Beaufort cheese-making process to create biogas through anaerobic digestion, as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“Whey is our fuel,” said François Decker, director of operations at Valbio, a Canadian company that built the 800-square-meter power plant in southeastern France, reports The Telegraph. The plant generates enough electricity for 1,500 people, says the British newspaper.

When milk is turned into cheese, it produces whey, a liquid that cheese makers either sell to plants that transform it into whey powder used in cheese making, or give to farms to use as a nutritional additive in feed for their animals or to fertilize their lands, explains Valbio on its website.

But the price of whey fluctuates, explains Valbio, and it costs money to transport it.

“Anaerobic digestion offers an interesting alternative,” says the company, as it converts a product cheesemakers have to get rid of into one that can be reused to create the energy to power their operations.

Anaerobic digestion is a natural biological process that transforms organic matter such as food waste into biogas, a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases. At the French plant, whey is placed in a tank with bacteria where it undergoes a natural fermentation process, much like the process that happens in cows’ stomachs, to produce methane and other gases.

The gas, which is functionally identical to the gas typically extracted with oil and coal, is then used in an engine that heats water to 90 degrees Celsius and generates electricity. The French plant will produce about 2.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

Valbio has built about 20 small biogas plants in France, other European countries, and in Canada. It is planning to build others in Australia, Italy, Brazil, and Uruguay, reports the Telegraph.

In the US, the federal government aims to increase the number of biogas plants in the country, of which it now counts 2,000, to help reduce emissions of methane, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas. Methane is emitted from the anaerobic digestion of landfill, from natural gas and petroleum production, and from agricultural waste.

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