Great Western Malting Company fires up thermo-electric cogeneration plant in December 1982.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 10/12/2011
  • Essay 9949
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In December 1982, the Great Western Malting Company, located since 1935 on land leased from the Port of Vancouver, starts generating heat and electricity with an on-site, gas-turbine cogeneration plant. The company has seen its energy costs soar in recent years and is faced with the possibility of having to close its facility. The new power plant provides Great Western with the heat it needs to dry barley malt and also produces electricity, which is sold to the Clark County Public Utility District. The electricity the district buys from Great Western is more expensive than that purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration, which causes some public controversy. But by filling its requirements for heat and offsetting that cost through the sale of excess electricity, Great Western stays competitive in a global market, saves the jobs of its 150 employees, and continues to prosper.



Great Western Malting was established in 1934 by a group of Washington and Oregon businessmen, most of whom were brewery owners who had been nearly ruined by Prohibition. The ban on making and selling alcoholic beverages had been in place in Washington and Oregon since January 1916, approximately four years before the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act rendered the whole nation legally "dry." The Northwest's lucrative brewing industry and the region's barley and hops growers were brought to their knees by the ban.

A few of the larger breweries were able to hang on through the 14 dry years by making syrups, sodas, and "near" beer, but many more failed. In March 1933 the newly elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, which amended the Volstead Act to permit the manufacture and sale of beer with no greater than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume. The following December, the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition entirely, was ratified. Brewers and distillers who had managed to hang on during the "Great Experiment" in enforced abstinence were eager to get back to business.

Among Great Western Malting's founders were brewers Arnold Blitz and William Einzig, of Blitz-Weinhard; Phillip Polsky, of Vancouver's Star Brewing; Peter Schmidt, of Tumwater's Olympia Brewing; and Emil Sick (1894-1964), who had opened the Century Brewing Company (later Rainier Brewing) in 1933. These men foresaw that the demand for the ingredients needed to brew beer would surge. Chief among these was barley malt, and although the grain was grown in both Washington and Oregon, there were no malting facilities in the region. The men saw a chance to recoup some of their Prohibition-era losses, and in 1935, the year after the company was formed, Great Western Malting opened its plant on land leased from the Port of Vancouver.

The malting plant's location at the Port offered many benefits -- ready rail access to the barley and hop farmers of Eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley in Oregon, limitless fresh water from the Columbia River, existing grain elevators that could be used to store the raw barley, and the infrastructure necessary to ship the finished product by rail, road, or sea. Given all these benefits, the company was an immediate success, and would prosper almost continuously for the next 40 years.

The first real threat to Great Western's success came from escalating power costs. Producing barley malt is an energy-intensive process. Raw barley is first soaked to spur germination, then conditioned in large rotating drums at precisely controlled temperature and humidity, and finally transported to large kilns to be dried. The kilns require a great deal of precisely controlled heat to produce high-quality malt. For a good many years the plant's power costs were tolerable, but beginning in the early 1970s they began to increase at the unsustainable rate of about 25 percent per year. If Great Western was to survive in domestic and foreign markets that were becoming increasingly competitive, it simply had to get its energy costs under control.

A Search for Answers

Beginning in the late 1970s, Great Western Malting began what would become five years of research on how to economically fulfill its power needs. According to company  president Tod R. Hamacheck, the alternative was to "eventually close the plant," which would have put 150 people out of work (Christian Science Monitor). As Terry O'Brien, the vice president in charge of operations, explained in 1984:

"When the cost of energy rose from almost nothing to our largest single operating expense, surpassing even direct labor, and projections showed only continued increases, the decision was made to look for alternative ways to secure the thermal energy we needed to make malt barley" ("Trends in Industrial Power Plants").

One of the first alternatives the company looked at was conservation, but experiments showed that any reduction in the energy used to dry the malted barley changed its enzymatic activity, and this affected the flavor of the end product. Great Western, founded as it was by brewers, prided itself on the consistent high quality of its barley malt and was not willing to do anything that would jeopardize its ability to maintain this standard.

The company also considered using waste heat from a nearby aluminum smelter, and although this would have supplied about 70 percent of Great Western's needs, it would have required a three-mile pipeline and ultimately was deemed unworkable. The use of heat pumps was researched as well, to no avail; studies show that these would have required more electrical power than the local utility could reliably provide. The company was running out of options, but something had to be done if it was to survive, and Great Western kept looking.


Cogeneration, simply put, is a method of producing both heat and electricity from the same fuel at the same time, getting, very roughly, twice the bang for the buck. The basic technology has been known for well over a century; Thomas Edison (1847-1931) installed a cogenerating plant in the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego in 1888, where it ran without problems for 50 years. But for much of the twentieth century low fuel costs and abundant electricity made cogeneration an unnecessary investment for most industries.

When fuels costs soared in the 1970s and 1980s, many industries with high power needs started dusting off the old blueprints and looking once again to cogeneration. A power plant that produced only electricity by burning fuel, regardless of the fuel used, was about 32 percent efficient; a cogenerator using the same amount of fuel could reach 80 percent efficiency by harnessing both the electricity and the heat produced by the generating process.

In a bit of fortuitous timing, just as Great Western was running out of options for solving its power problems, a company from Bellevue, Washington, Trans Energy Systems, completed a study of 150 industrial plants, including Great Western, to determine their suitability for the use of cogeneration. The study demonstrated that a natural-gas-fired turbine could produce not only sufficient heat to meet most of the company's needs, but also generate electricity that could be sold to offset the cost of fuel. Great Western had access to abundant supplies of natural gas, from both U.S. and Canadian sources. After reviewing Trans Energy's study, the company made the decision to invest $11 million in a cogenerating thermal-electric plant at its Port of Vancouver facility.

Making it Work

Great Western told the designers that it had one major requirement for the new power plant -- it must fit into the company's existing manufacturing process without requiring any changes to the established malt-production methods. Any changes to the tried-and-true methods the company had used for nearly 50 years could affect the quality of it malt, and this was unacceptable.

Work began in early 1982 and the cogeneration plant, built by Pacific Cogeneration, was fired up for the first time in December of that year. The plant used natural gas to spin a General Electric LM2500 turbine, nearly identical to the ones used to power DC 10 airliners. The heat produced went to a recovery boiler, where water was heated and then pumped through a closed-loop system to the kilns. Running at about 90 percent capacity, the turbine threw off sufficient heat to produce between 75 and 85 million British Thermal Units (BTUs) per hour of hot water, providing more than 85 percent of Great Western's heating needs. The turbine's spin was also harnessed to generate 20 megawatts of electrical power, enough to power 8,000 homes. By prior agreement, this was to be purchased by the Clark County Public Utility District.

The cogeneration plant came just in time for Great Western. Although its use actually increased the company's consumption of natural gas, the income realized through the sale of electricity to the PUD more than made up for it. Competition in the malting industry became even more intense in coming years, and the company's foreign exports were reduced in the 1980s by a strong U.S. dollar. Great Western's ability to both meet its power needs and reap income from what it couldn't use was a key to its long-term prosperity, and very likely to its survival.

A Few Watts of Controversy

There was one small hitch, however. The Clark County PUD was paying the Bonneville Power Administration about 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour of dam-generated electricity, but it had agreed to pay Great Western about 4 cents per kWh of the power produced by the cogeneration plant. The PUD justified the difference in part on the fact that it gave the utility district some valuable experience with cogeneration, which seemed likely to become an increasingly common practice as fuel costs continued to rise.

But the disparity in price did not escape notice. Many in the community believed that citizen ratepayers were in effect being asked to subsidize Great Western's operations. The controversy was never fully addressed, largely because the total electricity used by customers of the Clark County PUD was huge compared to what was being purchased from the malting plant. The impact on consumers' utility bills was scarcely noticeable, and the controversy eventually faded, overshadowed by the repercussions from the financial meltdown a year earlier of the Washington Public Power Supply System's nuclear-plant program.


Andrea Blaser, "History of the Great Western Malting Company" (Archaeological Investigations Northwest, Inc.), copy in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, available through Port of Vancouver; Douglas J. Smith, "Trends in Industrial Power Plants," Power Engineering, Vol. 88, No. 10 (October 1984) p. 26; T. W. Kienlen, "Jet Engine Helps Produce Power from Natural Gas," The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 1983 (;  Richard Munson, The Power Makers, (Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1985), 149-150; "Clark Public Utilities," Public Power, Vol. 47, No. 6 (November-December 1989), p. 39; "Pacific Cogeneration/Great Western Malting 20-MW Gas Fired Cogeneration Facility Vancouver, Washington," in Case Studies of Ten Electricity Generating Power Plants, United States Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information website accessed October 10, 2011 (; "U.S. Constitution, Amendment 18," U.S. Constitution Online website accessed October 10, 2011 (

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