Fairbanks Brewery Powered by the Sun

By Rachael Kvapil

Bobby and Jessica Wilken are all smiles when it comes to sharing their brewery with the community. Photo by Grace Wilson

Standing at the counter of HooDoo Brewing Co., it’s hard to imagine the amount of energy needed to brew and sell beer. Aside from the high-ceiling light fixtures and the touchscreen where people pay for their order, the consumption of electricity isn’t evident. However, the equipment needed for the beer-making process and storage of the final product—in addition to packaging for distribution elsewhere—all require energy. In 2017, 5 years after the brewery was established in the heart of Fairbanks, HooDoo owner and head brewer Bobby Wilkin looked for new ways to make energy use more reliable and efficient.

“Breweries are energy intensive,” says Bobby. “Of course, there’s the cost of heating the building, and cooking and boiling during the brewing process. Our steam boiler runs on fuel oil, which we’ll be converting to natural gas this winter. A major cost is electricity used for the chiller system, which cools the fermentation and conditioning tanks and the kegs and cans that are stored in cold rooms after packaging.”

Given the amount of energy needed for daily operations, Bobby sought alternative power resources to reduce costs, and gave to the community by contributing to the utility grid, which also benefits the environment. Bobby worked with local solar company Renewable Energy Systems of Alaska (RES) to install solar panels to harness the sun during the 20+ hours of daylight in the late spring and early summer.

HooDoo Brewing has evolved and added different elements to the establishment through the years, one of which was the addition of solar panels in 2017. Photo by Grace Wilson

Bobby says there were a few logistical challenges when it came to finding the best location for the panels. Though their parking area is wide open, it is usually full, so he worried a vehicle might accidentally bump into the arrays. They also considered placing panels behind the building; however, a nearby structure casts shadows during different parts of the day. Eventually, they installed 60 solar panels on the roof. Since the brewery is housed in the 1970s Alaska Pipeline-era building, RES needed to reinforce the trusses to support the weight and mechanics of the new solar project.

“That was an added expense,” Bobby says. “But it was well worth it.”

The solar system produces about 110 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day in the summer, about ⅓ of HooDoo’s power per year. Additionally, it reduces the carbon dioxide produced by combustion by roughly 1.5 tons per month during the summer season. Data is gauged by a real-time, cloud-based monitoring system. As expected, energy generation fluctuates seasonally in the subarctic when there is less sunlight in the fall and winter, but any extra energy produced feeds into the community grid year-round.

HooDoo bartender Kirsten Watts pours a pint of Kölsch on a busy afternoon in the taproom.

“The results were pretty immediate,” Bobby says. “Our highest utility costs are in the summer when we’re making more beer because people are drinking more beer. Over 3,000 kilowatt-hours were generated within months of turning on the system.”

Bobby speaks highly of RES’s work and says they collaborated with GVEA to tie the system into the grid and work out any design or safety issues associated with the different power draws and run cycles of the brewery’s equipment. Though installing solar panels isn’t cheap, Bobby says the rewards are worth it in the long run.

“People are daunted by the calculated payoff,” Bobby says. “We calculated the payoff for our solar panels around 7 years, which is daunting. However, businesses need to think long-term, and they can invest the expense now and thank themselves later. I’m glad we did it because now they’re sitting on the roof and we’ll be reaping the rewards for many years to come. So, you can’t get too stuck on numbers.”