Is Solar Power the Future of Craft Brewing?

March 05, 2018

By Cherise Threewitt, March 05, 2018

As of November 2016, Netherlands-based Solarplaza maintained a list of the 50 breweries with the most solar capacity, most of which are in the United States. However, none of the entries on Solarplaza’s list qualified as 100 percent solar. That will soon change, thanks to two small yet enterprising breweries on opposite ends of the country.

“As far as we can tell, we were the first [craft brewery] in the nation to go 100 percent solar,” said Matt Nadeau, co-founder of Rock Art Brewery. The Morristown, Vermont brewery claimed this honor in early-spring 2017. “I was pretty pumped for that.”

Soon, they will be joined by Maui Brewing Co. in Kihei, Hawaii. Since 2015, Maui Brewing has been building a new facility with fully solar capabilities, slated for completion in 2019. Solar conversion is a serious investment, but one worth considering, particularly for breweries with long-term growth plans that include sustainability. Both Rock Art and Maui Brewing will reap the benefits of solar power for years to come.

Right now, we’re generating about 95 percent of our electricity on site, between the solar and the micro turbines.”

If solar power and brewing truly are the perfect match, then why has it taken so long for breweries to make the switch to solar power? Sierra Nevada Brewing, recognized as one of the pioneers in sustainable brewing practices, might have the answer. According to Sierra Nevada's sustainability manager Cheri Chastain, breweries can be held back by utility regulations that restrict them from producing energy on-site, unless they invest in complicated and expensive protection equipment. In this way, smaller breweries, and those in regions with fewer utility regulations, have a considerable advantage.

Sierra Nevada installed its first solar panels in 2007, when the types of battery systems used by Rock Art and Maui Brewing were not yet commonplace nor affordable. Sierra Nevada’s current power setup consists of solar panels, batteries and micro turbines. The solar panels cover the peak power load, which is the most expensive solar demand of the day, from noon to 6 p.m., while the micro turbines run overnight.                                  

“Right now, we’re generating about 95 percent of our electricity on site, between the solar and the micro turbines. Our 2-megawatt solar array is only 20 percent of our electricity needs,” said Chastain. “There are peaks in there when we need more electricity than we can generate and that’s where our batteries come in.”

Sierra Nevada’s 12,500 solar panel commitment—spread out between their California and North Carolina facilities—might seem daunting to the average brewery, especially considering it takes between 28 and 34 solar panels to run the average home. Mike McCarthy, a solar project consultant at Vermont-based SunCommon, who worked on the Rock Art conversion, agrees that size is a factor in the success of a solar project.

“The biggest issue is that it takes a lot of solar panels to cover the big energy consumption and Rock Art is a relatively small brewery, so they were able to use their roof and get enough power out of it to offset all of their brewery electricity over the course of the year,” McCarthy said. “They signed up to go solar with SunCommon in the fall of 2016 and we had their project permitted and installed in June. Most commercial solar projects take 6 to 8 months from sale to installation, so this was pretty typical.”

Nadeau said the solar conversion is something he and his wife Renee Nadeau have envisioned for a long time. Growing up, he spent a lot of time on the family’s camp, which was powered by a wind turbine. He said his grandfather would be proud of the solar brewery, right down to the electric forklift that is also powered by solar panels.

“I wish he could have seen this setup, he would have loved it,” Nadeau said.

Nadeau went on to explain that not only was the actual conversion seamless, but there also have not been any energy problems since. Rock Art is only using 75 percent of its roof, so there’s plenty of room to expand. The small-but-growing company’s solar status also has helped it differentiate itself in the crowded craft beer market.

“We’re putting stickers on top of the little can holders stating ‘100 percent solar,’” said Nadeau. “As we’re changing over labels. We’re adding that solar statement to the label as well. It’s something we are pretty proud of—solar energy for beer.”

We definitely want to promote the low carbon footprint of our beer and our story.”

Solar panels are a more common sight on the Hawaiian islands than in the Northeast, but Maui Brewing’s project is no less ambitious. The brewery’s conversion is slower-going and more complex. Co-founder Garrett Marrero said the project is being completed in phases, for financial and tax purposes, and can also be scaled as the brewery grows.

Maui Brewing’s solar initiatives will complement other eco-minded best practices, such as insulated wall and roof panels, a recovery system to capture and reuse the C02 produced during fermentation as well as using locally-made aluminum cans for packaging.

Garrett, too, plans to capitalize on the brewery’s solar status for marketing purposes, although he emphasized that it wasn’t the point of the project.

“We truly feel it’s the right thing to do for the environment, but also financially responsible for us,” Garrett said. “We definitely want to promote the low carbon footprint of our beer and our story. Sustainability is one of our founding principles. We stay true to it and celebrate it.”

“I do think it will become a trend as costs continue to rise in energy and controlling those costs is very important to long-term success,” Garrett said. “I think it’s horrible to see the government promote coal and oil, especially, potentially, at the expense of sustainable energy.”

One hesitation for breweries when making the decision to go solar is the startup cost. The investment for solar conversion may seem steep. For Rock Art it was to the tune of $212,000, but Nadeau said financial limitations aren’t necessarily deal-breakers. The initial investment will be paid back over a 12-year term, which is typical for solar conversions and includes installation, materials, and maintenance of the panels and the inverters.

“It was one of our birthday presents for being in business for 20 years,” Nadeau explained. “It’s a great use of space that people aren’t using, and I think it’s just wonderful. The technology now, the panels don’t have to be perfectly oriented, they aren’t taking up space on the ground, and you’re getting the energy. If you own your own place, go ahead and do it, and if you’re leasing, talk to the landlord.”

Solar and beer make for a good pairing.”

However, before breweries take the leap into solar energy, Chastain, who has more than 10 years of experience managing Sierra Nevada’s power setup, urges breweries to take an honest look at their other sustainable energy practices.

“I would advise every brewer out there, focus on efficiency before you go straight to generating your own power,” Chastain said. “You can generate all the green power in the world that you want to, but if you’re not using it efficiently, you’re defeating the purpose.”

That’s a message that Rock Art and Maui Brewing took to heart years ago. They might be pioneers in this area, but they won’t be alone for long. Considering the benefits, Nadeau expects more breweries to take the initiative.

“We’re already working with other Vermont breweries like the Alchemist on projects for the coming year,” McCarthy said. “Solar and beer make for a good pairing.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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