But all that production has a downside. "Acid whey has always been the monkey on our back if we're in the culture business," said Roger Parkhurst, the Industrial Director for Alpina in the United States.
Acid whey is the by-product of the Greek yogurt culturing process. It's what is left over when proteins are separated from skim milk. The Alpina plant processes over a half a million pounds of skim milk each week. Roughly 70 percent of that becomes acid whey.
Manufacturers look for ways to make acid whey an ingredient for other products, but the supply always outstrips the demand. "You can't have Greek yogurt, good quality Greek yogurt, without having a plan on how you're going to deal with acid whey," said Parkhurst.
Last fall, Parkhurst met Lauren Toretta of CH4 Biogas, a company that turns acid whey into green energy. "We use a process called anaerobic digestion and what this process does is it neutralizes the acidity of the whey," said Toretta.
For Parkhurst, the meeting represented a new opportunity. "That opened up an avenue that I felt was advantageous to the community and the environment," he said.
Alpina's acid whey is transported about 20 minutes to CH4 Biogas in Wyoming County. Methane is extracted over 21 days, compressed and run through an engine which puts electricity out onto the grid. "It reduces the carbon footprint of facilities like Alpina, but it also keeps greenhouse gases, which methane is one of the worst, from being emitted into the atmosphere," said Toretta.
Through CH4 Biogas, Alpina's acid whey by-product creates enough energy to power about a thousand homes. Parkhurst is thrilled with the outcome. "It's fundamental to stay in business today, you have to be environmentally responsible, or else you'll be out of business."