Solar array by Missoula Electric finds eager partner in KettleHouse Brewing

Crews with Jordan Solar of Ronan place 189 solar panels on a community solar array by the Missoula Electric Cooperative atop KettleHouse Brewing’s new production facility and taproom in Bonner. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The sun shone on cue Monday as crews installed the last few panels on a 55 kilowatt solar array atop KettleHouse Brewing’s new production facility and taproom in Bonner, the third community project completed by the Missoula Electric Cooperative.

While it may not produce solar-powered beer at the new taproom below, its high visibility and carbon offset play a large role in the brewing company’s desire to build community awareness around climate change, and the simple solutions that could be applied to address it.

“It’s about bringing access to those who may not otherwise have found it,” said KettleHouse co-owner Tim O’Leary. “Our audacious, long-term goal is to be carbon neutral. I like to say, the journey of 1,000 beers starts with the first sip. This is a way of doing that, and bringing other community members along.”

As construction wraps up on the brewery’s new taproom overlooking the Blackfoot River, O’Leary and cooperative general manager Mark Hayden discussed the array’s origin, one that dates back several years to when the KettleHouse first built its production facility in Bonner.

“(O’Leary) expressed the desire to participate in renewable energy somehow here at the brewery,” said Hayden. “We were looking for a third location, and this was a perfect fit.”

The Missoula Electric Cooperative installed its first community solar array in Lolo back in 2015, followed by a second project in Frenchtown. This array, which covers the brewery’s south-facing roof, is the cooperative’s largest yet.

The $100,000 project includes 189 panels capable of generating 250 kilowatt hours a year, according to Hayden. While that’s a small percent of the 1,000 kilowatt hours used monthly by the average home, when coupled with the cooperative’s nearly carbon-free portfolio, it begins to add up for members.

“If you purchase the output of two panels and you’re an average consumer, that would offset about 5 percent of your annual usage,” Hayden said. “Couple that with the 95 percent carbon-free power we have each and every day, and you’re virtually carbon free at home.”

The 189 panel solar array can generate roughly 250 kilowatt hours a year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The cooperative is locally governed by a board of directors who, responding to the demands of their members, have made a push into solar. And the timing may be perfect as consumers look at greener, cleaner options in their everyday lives.

A report released Sunday by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sharply warned that rapid and unprecedented changes “in all aspects of society” are needed now to head off the worst impacts of global warming.

While the Missoula Electric Cooperative and KettleHouse Brewing won’t alone change the equation, both said they’re committed to playing their part.

“If you don’t start and try something, you just feel hopeless,” said O’Leary. “I have panels at my house, and when I come home and look at those, I get a good feeling. I may not have saved the world, but it’s a good start. We have answers, we just need action and need to make these kinds of decisions.”

Missoula Electric claims 12,000 members and 15,000 meters on its system. Those members can purchase a KettleHouse panel and apply the offset to their own electrical consumption, regardless of whether they’re directly served by the panel or not.

While each panel goes for roughly $650, the buyer is guaranteed the output for 25 years with no maintenance costs, insurance or taxes. They’re also entitled to one free beer at the Bonner taproom per visit.

“I think it’ll sell out the fastest, because we’re going to add the benefit of a Renew-A-Mug to each member who buys into this program,” O’Leary said. “They’ll get their first beer free when they come out to visit us at this taproom. A lot of solar projects take seven to 12 years, depending on where you are and your energy costs, for it to start paying off. This will start paying back immediately.”

Tim O’Leary, co-owner of KettleHouse Brewing, said the motors used to cool portions of the production facility run 24 hours a day. The solar array will help offset a portion of that power. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Since launching KettleHouse, O’Leary said he’s learned a number of lessons, including the sense of community a taproom develops. That community often comes with demands, and in Missoula, that often nods to the environment.

“That’s why it made sense for us to bring attention to these types of programs and give people hope who may not have the exposure, the roof or the many factors that may keep them out of the solar game,” O’Leary said. “It’s why people like craft breweries, and specifically taprooms. They want to come see where the beer is made. To have these solar panels out where they’re visible in the community, I think it’s a great strategy.”