The holiday season is a special time of year, and Michigan Sugar Company helps to make it sweet. The sugarbeet processor makes sugar products for home use, as well as for bakeries, restaurants and food processing facilities.
“The holidays are a good time of year for our operations,” according to Ray VanDriessche, Director of Community & Government Relations at Michigan Sugar. “We typically see a 10 to 15 percent increase in sales because holiday baking is a tradition for many families and sugar is a key ingredient in many of the products that our commercial customers sell this time of year.”
Formed in 1906 and headquartered in Bay City, the company became a grower-owned cooperative in 2002. Today, more than 1,000 farmer-shareholders grow sugarbeets on 165,000 acres of land throughout Michigan and in Canada. Four processing plants in Bay City, Caro, Croswell and Sebewaing produce over 1 billion pounds of sugar each year. The company also is saving energy and saving money with energy efficiency rebates and incentives from Consumers Energy. For details, see the bottom of this blog post.
The process of making sugar has not changed much in over 100 years. Sugarbeets are harvested in the fall starting around Sept. 1 and ending mid-November with the bulk of the crop harvested and delivered in the last 10 days of October. In 2012, Michigan Sugar growers had a record crop, averaging just over 29 tons per acre. The sugarbeets must be harvested quickly due to the potential for wet weather conditions in the fall and the quick onset of winter weather possible in November. As a result, the processing plants must receive the sugarbeets in a hurry and prepare them for storage and processing.
In the sugar factory, the sugarbeets are washed and sliced into thin strips called cossettes, which resemble french fries. The cossettes are then dumped into a large tower (diffuser) filled with hot water. As the cossettes move through the diffuser, the sugar is drawn out into the sugar water, called thin juice. The thin juice then has all the impurities removed before going to the evaporator towers, which remove the excess water and make what is known as thick juice or standard liquor.
When the thick juice reaches the right consistency, finely ground sugar crystals are added. Sugar from the thick juice bonds with the sugar crystals as the solution becomes more concentrated, eventually forming pure white granulated sugar.
It takes nearly six months to process the piles of sugarbeets the factories receive. During this time (early September through mid-March), the factories operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once the sugarbeets have all been sliced, factory equipment is completely cleaned and refurbished in preparation for the next crop.
Out of this process comes granulated, powered and brown sugar; as well as co-products such as lime, pulp and molasses. The co-products are important in that they account for more than 6 percent of total revenues and help reduce waste. “There is very little waste when processing sugarbeets,” stated VanDriessche, “just about everything is used.”
What is the difference between regular sugar and brown sugar? ”I do a lot of tours in our facilities and that is probably the question I am asked the most,” according to VanDriessche. Brown sugar results from a precise blending of granulated white sugar with molasses. The actual blend depends on whether the product is golden or dark brown sugar.
Increasing efficiency and saving energy
While the process of making sugar has changed little over the years, Michigan Sugar has invested in new technologies that make the process more efficient and use less energy. A steam dryer was installed in 2006 to replace natural gas dryers for drying pulp. A $15 million dollar investment, the steam dryers save a considerable amount of energy by recovering steam that once dissipated into the air, and using it to dry the beet pulp. The Bay City facility was retrofitted with higher efficiency boilers. While larger, the boilers contained increased controls and more efficient burners, allowing them to increase steam pressure and dry 100 percent of their pulp.
Michigan Sugar received Consumers Energy rebates in 2010 for beet dewatering equipment and ducting for boiler combustion air preheating. The pulp press expansion reduced the water content of the pulp making gas drying more energy efficient, saving nearly $200,000 per year. Ducting residual building heat to the process boiler reduced fuel costs by $30,000 annually.
Wastewater treatment is a significant energy user for Michigan Sugar. In 2011, the company replaced old, 60-horsepower (HP), aerator motors with new, energy-efficient 25 HP units. The payback on energy costs was approximately one year, with increased aerator performance.
The company is currently in the process of retrofitting 65 four-lamp fluorescent light fixtures in their Bay City administration building with light-emitting diode (LED) replacements, which are more energy efficient and longer lasting. With the energy savings and a $1,000 rebate from Consumers Energy, the estimated payback time is three years.
Michigan Sugar plans to continue working with Consumers Energy to find ways to save on costs, according to Mr. VanDriessche. “We are implementing many of Consumers Energy’s recommendations,” he said, “and they are helping our bottom line as far as energy efficiency.”
To learn more about energy efficiency rebates for Michigan businesses, visit www.ConsumersEnergy.com/mybusiness. For more information about Michigan Sugar Company and the sugar-making process, visit www.michigansugar.com.