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A renewable energy masterclass from Mackie's

Mackie's may trust old family recipes for its ice cream, but it’s all about innovation when it comes to energy. Find out about the company's ‘sky to scoop’ philosophy, green goals, and how we’ve supported its sustainability projects so far.

9 Oct 2023 | 7 minute read

Mackie's is a household name in Scotland. The company has been making ice cream from the family farm since the 1980s, but it’s far from old fashioned. In fact, it was ahead of the curve in harnessing the power of the Scottish weather.

Maitland Mackie, founder of the ice cream business and late father of the current owners, installed a small wind turbine on the hill by the piggery back in 1983. While the original turbine and the piggery are no longer on the farm, the spirit of green innovation has never left.

Finding sustainable solutions

“As a family and a farming business, Mackie’s is naturally concerned with sustainability. It’s an inherent goal of each generation that the land is passed on to the next in a better state than it was found,” says Angus Hayhow, grandson of Sir Maitland and Head of Marketing at Mackie’s.

The current generation have certainly taken this to heart, building in sustainable practices and solutions throughout the ice cream-making process.

They call it “sky to scoop”: using turbines and solar panels to harness the energy of the wind and sun to power the dairy, as well as to grow crops to feed the cows that produce the milk to make ice cream. That’s the simple version, of course. The actual ice cream making process involves a lot more steps, and energy – which Mackie’s works hard to innovate on and keep as sustainable as possible.

Wind turbines and solar panels

Reducing the energy it uses and creating as much of its own renewable energy as possible is a key part of the company’s goal to become completely energy self-sufficient – and it’s getting close.

Mackie's has been generating its own wind power since 2005 and now has four turbines that generate 8570 megawatt hours per year. That amount of energy could power more than 2000 homes.

There are also more than 7000 solar panels at the Mackie’s site, dotted across the roofs of the buildings and clustered in a solar farm at the top of the hill. All these panels generate a further 2000 megawatt hours per year.

Between the turbines and the solar panels, Mackie's generates approximately twice as much energy as it uses each year. Whatever it doesn’t use goes back to the UK National Grid.

Despite generating a huge amount of energy, Mackie’s hasn't quite reached renewably-generated energy self-sufficiency yet. This is because the weather can be temperamental and won’t always produce as much energy as the business requires to power its operational needs each day.

When this happens, Mackie’s needs to use energy from the National Grid. Researching and trialling methods to store the energy produced on days when the Scottish wind and sun provide excess power is on the company's list of future sustainability projects.

Low carbon refrigeration

One of the biggest energy uses on the Mackie’s farm is the refrigeration of its signature product: ice cream.

Mackie’s ice cream isn’t just popular in Scotland – it’s made its way all over the world. With so many people after a taste of that home-grown goodness, Mackie’s must produce a huge amount of ice cream. On average, it makes more than 13.5 million litres of ice cream per year, and in 2022 it sold enough in the UK alone to fill five Olympic swimming pools.

All that ice cream must be kept frozen, which uses an enormous amount of energy. Reducing this has both business and environmental benefits, so Mackie’s has implemented a new solution: the low carbon refrigeration system (LCRS) plant, the first of its kind in Scotland.

The plant uses ammonia, a natural refrigerant gas, and heat from the biomass boilers to power refrigerated spaces where the ice cream is cooled and stored. This innovative solution reduces environmental impact and is anticipated to cut the company’s energy use and CO2 emissions by up to 80%.

This is by no means all of Mackies’ green initiatives, though. It is also exploring ways to reduce the Greenhouse Effect of their cows (it trialled a new food mixture in 2022 which reduced emissions), has been preparing the 10-acre solar farm to house bees, and has started providing electric bikes for staff to use to enjoy the Aberdeenshire outdoors.

Mackie's in action

Watch Angus Hayhow, Head of Marketing at Mackie's, talk through the company's sustainability journey so far:

Seeking support from experts

It’s no small feat to implement sustainability initiatives, and the team at Mackie’s has been candid about the challenges.

Back in 2005, at the beginning of the company's renewable energy journey, there were a lot of steps that it hadn’t anticipated. “You can’t just put up a turbine or a field of solar panels anywhere,” Angus explains. “You do have to apply for planning permission and get consultations from experts on the optimal spot and oversee the process of them being connected to the national grid.”

It can be hard for businesses to know where to start with sustainability efforts, from small initiatives to big projects. This is why getting advice and support from experts is so important.

Scottish Enterprise has worked with Mackie’s for several years across a range of projects. One thing that Mackie’s has commented on as being very helpful is how we can signpost businesses to the right people to support its projects and help across a range of business areas.

For Mackie’s, this has taken the form of strategic support, leadership coaching and management development, as well as capital support for equipment.

Investing in sustainability

For Mackie’s, the upfront capital investment for each of its energy solutions has been substantial – biomass boilers and low carbon refrigeration don’t come cheap! But it isn’t just worth it from the environmental perspective – there’s a definite business benefit, too.

“They [The turbines and solar panels] pay for themselves through the energy they produce, which the business uses, and through earnings from the excess energy which is sold to the grid,” Angus comments. Having its own supply of energy has also helped protect Mackie’s from the extremes of energy price variations over the last year. This has allowed the brand to keep its prices lower than some of its competitors, which has led to it winning new customers across the UK.

Mackie’s has even noted a positive effect on the product itself, its famous ice cream. “The LCRS freezes the ice cream at a faster rate because of its efficiency, which creates smaller, smoother ice crystals, which in turn leads to a smoother and creamier mouthfeel,” Angus explains.

Finding sustainable solutions for its operations is natural for Mackie’s – a lesson instilled in this family-run business since Maitland Mackie first bought the farm all those years ago. But it also encourages all businesses to explore greener ways of operating.

“We would do it all again, and now is as good a time as any if you haven’t started on your own sustainability journey,” Angus says.

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