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At Birdsong Brewing, climate and environment are part of the business plan

 People standing atop a brewery roof overlooking solar panels
David Boraks
Chris and Tara Goulet run Birdsong Brewing in Charlotte, where sustainability is baked into their business plan. They are standing adjacent to the roof of their brewery and tap room on North Davidson Street, which is outfitted with solar panels.

This story appeared first in reporter David Boraks' weekly email newsletter. Sign up here to get the latest news straight to your inbox first.

For many small or medium-sized businesses, adapting to climate change is not a high priority. It's difficult and requires altering business practices and spending money to retrofit facilities — all while facing low margins. At Charlotte'sBirdsong Brewing, it's been an integral part of the business plan since day one.

You can see it on the roof of Birdsong's North Davidson Street brewery and tap room, where 220 solar panels supply about 40% of the company's electricity. The 12-year-old company, run by Tara and Chris Goulet, is one of the city's oldest craft breweries — and a case study in environmental sustainability for a small business.

"There are some breweries in town that have grown faster than us. For us, it's not all about growth. We've tried to focus on keeping our staff happy and healthy (and) trying to focus on being as sustainable as we can be, from a business perspective," said managing partner Chris Goulet, a former banker.

I met the Goulets at the Birdsong tap room the other day for a conversation about what sustainability looks like to them. They had bicycled to work that morning, as they do some days. Besides solar energy, we talked about different kinds of recycling, the circular economy and making not just beer, but their own nitrogen.

Early on in the business, Chris Goulet said, "We just kind of said, 'Hey, how do we minimize our waste?' How do we produce stuff on site, like power or nitrogen that help reduce our total (carbon) footprint? And it just became kind of part of the ethos of Birdsong."

First, those solar panels

Birdsong uses a lot of electricity, especially with all its brewing equipment, coolers, heating and air-conditioning systems and lighting. So when the business moved to its current site more than five years ago, the Goulets decided to look into becoming Charlotte's first solar-powered brewery.

"It was a combination of business success and luck that let us do it the time we did it," Chris Goulet said. "In 2017, we released a new beer that did so well that all of a sudden we had this sort of excess cash flow."

The beer was a hoppy IPA named Paradise City, and its sales went through the roof.

"As a capitalist, you're supposed to just take that and go buy a boat, right? So we failed at that. And we decided we would do a solar panel system instead. That idea had been percolating for probably five or six years. And we just had this sort of moment where it was like, Hey, we can make it happen," he said.

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The initial investment for the 75-kilowatt array was about $150,000. Birdsong worked with a Winston-Salem installer called Renewable Energy Design, which planned the system and handled permitting and interconnection with Duke Energy — not an easy task, Goulet said.

"Duke, not surprisingly, is not super fast to approve large solar projects. I mean, I guess they get nervous when other people produce electricity. Makes sense," Goulet said. "So it was really funny. It was about a 10-month permitting process, and then it was 10 days to set it up."

But then came a bonus. At that time, Duke was offering rebates to homeowners and businesses that installed solar. Birdsong got a cash rebate from Duke that covered about one-quarter of the cost of the solar panels. "Even though they basically held us up for almost an entire year, they ended up giving us a rebate for the solar-panel installation after it was done," he said.

Today, the system helps the Goulets keep down their costs.

"It's actually a pretty low-maintenance system," Chris Goulet said. "Day in, day out, it's just producing electricity. And it produces about 40% of our total need."

Home-brewed nitrogen and more

Besides generating its own electricity, Birdsong has adopted other sustainability practices over the years.

  • Nitrogen. Like other breweries, Birdsong uses nitrogen in the brewing process to reduce usage of carbon dioxide. Instead of buying the gas, they make their own, Goulet said.
  • "We have a nitrogen generator onsite, which is basically just a fancy air compressor with a really cool set of filters. And so we can take ambient air, filter out all the oxygen and all the (carbon dioxide), and all the other small components, until we just have pure nitrogen. And then when we transfer from our fermenters to our bright tanks, we can fill the space that the beer leaves from with nitrogen, which is just a neutral gas. It doesn't interact with the beer, doesn't create any additional greenhouse gas emissions. And it just needs electricity, which we also produce onsite."
  • Spent grain recycling. "We partner with two farmers in the area and they can use our spent grain at the end of the brewing process. When we've gotten all the fermentable sugars out of it, we just have a whole bunch of wet barley left, which it turns out cows love. And so (the farmers) come pick it up, literally by the ton. The cows enjoy it, and then we don't have to landfill it, and the farmer gets to reduce their feed expense. So it's a really neat partnership."
  • Other recycling — cardboard, plastic and malt bags. Birdsong recycles anything it can. Most cardboard and plastic get sent off for recycling. Plastic six-pack can holders and malt bags are delivered to Envision Charlotte's Innovation Barn. It's a "circular economy" incubator that looks for ways to reuse hard-to-recycle materials. The used malt bags are turned into tote bags that breweries can resell.
  • Tara Goulet worked on that partnership: "They approached us about using our malt bags, because they're this great, almost like waterproof material. But they can't really be recycled very easily. So they said, 'Oh, why don't we just turn them into tote bags.' Then the breweries can turn around and sell them in taprooms."  She said many of Charlotte's breweries are now doing the same.
  • Energy-efficient lighting. "Inside the whole brewery is all LED (lighting)," Chris Goulet said. "You can see those LED string lights on the patio. Those are 1 watt, and they last about 5 years."

Many of these tactics not only save energy, but they cut expenses, too. And that's a plus for any business managing the bottom line.
In 2019, the local environmental group Sustain Charlotte gave BirdSong its "Inspiring Business" award for the solar project and sustainability efforts. Executive Director Shannon Binns said sustainability is becoming an important goal for many businesses.

"I think that there are a lot of businesses who understand that not only is this something that their customers increasingly want to see, want to support, but that it makes a lot of financial sense," Binns said. "Anytime a business is reducing water or energy use, they're also saving money. Just as commitments to reducing impact on the climate and sustainability, in general, have grown over the years, I think we're seeing it grow among small businesses, too."

Chris Goulet sees Birdsong's approach as a model for North Carolina.

"The more you travel around the world or around the U.S., you see different attitudes towards sustainability. And I think North Carolina's pretty behind, but I think it's starting to catch up a little bit," he said.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.