Montana businesses saving money with new solar panels

Montana businesses saving money with new solar panels

Thirteen solar panels on the roof at Cafã© Regis weren’t producing much power during the season’s first heavy snowfall.

But on a sunny day, the solar array can put a serious dent in the number of kilowatt-hours of electricity the restaurant buys from NorthWestern Energy.

“We use a lot of electricity,” said Cafã© Regis manager Martha A. Young. “It’ll offset about one month of electrical use in a year.”

That could add up to $400 in savings, Young said.

The cafe’s recently installed solar panels seem to signal a trend toward renewable energy in this small mountain town.

The Red Lodge Volunteer Fire Department began generating solar power last summer, and Red Lodge Ales plans to heat its brewery and make hot water for the brewing process with a solar array set to go in next year.

Good business sense

“I think it’s a really solid business decision,” Young said. “This is something we can do to make a little difference.”

Grant money paid for the fire department’s 12 solar panels, Deputy Chief Aaron McDowell said.

“On warmer days, we notice we’re selling energy rather than buying energy,” McDowell said.

Power produced by the panels goes first to fulfill the fire station’s electrical needs. If more than the station needs is produced, it sells the extra back to NorthWestern Energy.

“We have noticed a difference” in the bills, McDowell said. “They’re lower.”

Red Lodge Ales hopes solar energy will lower its power bills and reduce the fossil fuels it pours into its delivery truck.

The eight-year-old brewery recently received a $26,000 rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for renewable energy projects, said company president Sam Hoffmann.

Heating water daily

The grant will pay for 12 solar panels, which will heat 300 gallons of water a day to 180 degrees for radiant heating in the brewery floor and to use in the brewing process.

Radiant heating will be installed in a 4,400-square-foot addition planned for the brewery building. The new space will free up another area for brewing biodiesel, which Hoffmann makes in his unheated home garage.

The biodiesel, which Hoffmann can make only when it’s warm outside, fuels Red Lodge Ales’ lone delivery truck. The brewery uses about 150 gallons of biodiesel a month to deliver its products to outlets in Red Lodge and Billings.

Hoffmann makes the stuff 50 gallons at a time with used vegetable oil collected from the restaurants that serve his beer. In the new space, he’ll be able to make 150-gallon batches, and he’ll be able to make it year-round because the space will be heated.

To top off the “green” system, glycerine, a waste product from the biodiesel brewing process, will be fed to the brewery’s natural gas boiler, Hoffmann said.

Meanwhile, the expansion will increase the brewery’s capacity from 1,700 barrels of beer a year to 6,000. Red Lodge Ales brews 15 flavors of beer over the course of a year, although just six or seven are available at any one time.

Hoffmann hopes to break ground on the addition next year, provided he can clear some licensing hurdles with the town.

At Cafã© Regis, the solar panels were added after a wildly successful experiment with a solar-powered swamp cooler for the kitchen, Young said.

The $1,800 swamp cooler runs off a single solar panel and can drop the temperature in the kitchen by 20 degrees on a hot day.

Young was so impressed with the gadget that she decided to look into using solar energy to power the rest of the restaurant. With eight compressors keeping food fresh in refrigerators and a walk-in cooler, Cafã© Regis sucks down a lot of kilowatt-hours of power.

An $8,000 grant from NorthWestern Energy paid half the cost of the solar array. Cafã© Regis hosted a raffle and barbecue to raise money to help pay for the other half, Young said.

“Customers really felt like they were a part of it,” she said. “We are just trying to be more aware.”

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