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Energy Efficient Tea

Tea:  It’s the second most popular beverage in the world, next to water.  The importance of tea varies around the world from a casual iced summer beverage, to a ceremonial event.  Tea is ubiquitous in almost every country around the globe, but we don’t usually consider the source.  Before it gets to our cup, tea must be grown, picked, dried, packaged, and shipped.  This all requires energy – a lot of it.

Several legends exist surrounding the origins of tea drinking.  The most common comes from China, and tells the story of Emperor Shen Nung, who commonly boiled his drinking water.  One day, leaves from a nearby plant were said to have fallen into his cup of hot water.  The delicious brew that resulted marked the discovery of the tea leaf.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Tea eventually became so popular in the west that by the 17th century demand empowered “the most powerful commercial organisation that the world has ever seen,” (i.e. the British East India Company) according to the United Kingdom Tea Council.

Most Americans are fiercely aware of tea’s popularity in the early history of the country as British colonies.  The Tea Act of 1773 (which didn’t actually impose any new taxes on tea, but rather handed the East India Company a monopoly on tea sales) angered American colonists to the brink of revolution and triggered the Boston Tea Party.

Tea remains in high demand, in Europe, North America, and Asia, where it originated.  Africa is also now a major player in the tea market since climate in parts of the continent are perfect for growing tea leaves.  It takes work to grow, pick, dry, and package all of those leaves.  The inexpensive little sachet that holds your afternoon brew required a lot of energy to produce.

A 2008 study by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) estimated that the tea production process, from withering to packing, uses 4 to 18 kWh per kg of tea.  That can be higher than the energy required to make an equal amount of steel.  Energy sources range from simple firewood to oil or natural gas.  Electricity to run machines accounts for only about 15% of total energy use, the rest is used as feedstock for heat, fueling the drying process.

The largest tea producing areas of the world are also some of the poorest.  This creates big problems for the energy intensive processing of tea leaves, because in many places there is not a reliable supply of electricity.  The world’s largest producers of tea include China, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Japan, and Kenya.  In the rural areas of many of these countries where tea plantations are most common, electric grid reliability is often low.

To deal with these problems, tea factories often employ energy efficiency and even demand response techniques to keep stress on the electric grid low.  The Tea Institute of Sri Lanka outlines several different methods to reduce energy costs and produce high quality tea at the same time.  Some tea makers are moving to incorporate renewable energy into their operations to improve electricity reliability.  Other tea factories often reduce their operations during peak energy use hours, in order to reduce stress on the power grid and minimize the risks of power outage.  These companies initiate a type of voluntary demand response that benefits them by simply keeping power flowing.

Unlike coffee, which is often shipped “green” and roasted after it reaches its final destination, tea is processed prior to exporting, so countries that grow tea need reliable energy sources to manufacture and package their product.  The world’s demand for tea is unlikely to decline much, as it has been strong for the past several centuries.  The energy demand of tea manufacturing and its sustainability factor is on the decline, and that is lowering its carbon footprint.  Projects such as the Nordic Development Fund’s Enhancing Sustainable Energy Supply for Tea Factories and efficiency measures such as those proposed by the Tea Institute of Sri Lanka will put tea production on the road to energy sustainability.  This is good news, because tea is delicious, and it may even predict our future, so we should always have an ample supply handy.

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