WAUNAKEE — This was cornfield just eight years ago.
Where tractors and harvesters once plied the land, there are now towering stainless steel tanks, miles of piping and a high-tech bottling line that can fill 1,200 cans a minute.
Across the street, a 200,000-square-foot warehouse is home to a 25,000-square-foot cooler and a packaging line that snakes through the building in the Waunakee Business Park.
The $72 million project by Octopi was highly publicized a year ago when ground was broken on the expansion of the production facility and the sprawling new warehouse.
But this massive project next door to the Ice Pond, Waunakee’s indoor skating rink, is not just designed to allow Octopi to produce 1 million barrels of beer, seltzers, hard teas, energy drinks and a swath of other beverages. The expansion includes a large-scale energy storage system powered by a 270kW roof-top solar array and a 536kW battery that when fully charged provides 1,140 kWH of use. The system is being touted as a roadmap for other businesses looking to reduce their reliance on the grid.
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The new energy system, which went online in May, has already saved Octopi more than $13,000 on its electrical bills and ultimately will provide about 25% of the growing company’s power needs.
“This is the way we need to have business leaders think now in this new economy,” said Mark Redsten, CEO of Clean Wisconsin, a nonprofit foundation established in 1970 that promotes clean water, air and energy. “I think it’s a great example of what is possible. This is really the future.”
The $1.5 million system was funded in part with a $500,000 grant managed by the Public Service Commission Office of Energy and is believed to be the largest commercial operation of its kind in Dane County. Instead of sending electricity from the solar array directly back to the power company, Octopi’s system allows it to collect energy during the day and then store the extra power in a 20-foot-long, 6-foot-wide battery on the ground on the south side of the production facility.
The power generated by the system can be used during the day to reduce peak usage from the grid, can be used at night and provides a backup system in the event of a power outage, said Isaac Showaki, Octopi’s founder, who had begun looking into the technology about three years ago. The grant from the PSC cut the payback time on the system to seven years from more than 20 years, which allowed Showaki to move forward with the project, developed by Convergence Energy, a Lake Geneva company that develops energy storage and solar systems.
“It’s one giant battery. So when your peak comes on, the battery kicks in and kind of shaves it and lowers your bill,” Showaki said during a tour on Wednesday. “This project is one of the most important we’ve ever done.”
The PSC’s Energy Innovation Grant Program supports a wide variety of energy projects related to renewable energy and energy efficiency, storage and planning and since 2018 has awarded 109 grants totaling $22 million. The recipients have included cities, school districts, colleges, farms and other businesses, libraries and nonprofits such as the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Dunn County Historical Society.
The grant to Octopi is one of the PSC’s largest.
“Transformative projects like this will help Wisconsin achieve our state’s goal of zero carbon electricity by 2050,” said PSC commissioner Tyler Huebner. “This success story goes to show what’s possible when community partners are willing to improve energy efficiency and how the PSC’s Office of Energy Innovation can support their initiative.”
Octopi’s business has been on a meteoric rise that has evolved with the beverage industry and has continued to receive investment from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. At its founding, Octopi was a staff of six people. It has ballooned to more than 200 employees and has been authorized by the WEDC to receive up to $800,000 in state income tax credits for its latest project. The infusion comes after $300,000 in tax credits in 2017 and another $225,000 in 2019. Octopi now uses 380,000 square feet of production, office and warehouse space in Waunakee and has a 187,000-square-foot warehouse in nearby Windsor.
“This expansion is really incredible,” said Sam Rikkers, the WEDC’s deputy secretary and chief operating officer. “What (Showaki) has found is that there’s a whole market for co-packaging. So that type of creativity and innovation has really helped this place grow.”
Showaki opened a $5 million facility in 2015 and four years later completed an $11 million, 33,000-square-foot expansion that added more fermentation tanks and a new canning line. In early 2021, a new system capable of brewing 150-barrel batches at a time went online, while 20 more fermentation tanks, some of which can hold 600 barrels of product, were added along with a new pasteurization machine that can hold 21,000 cans.
A new level
Its latest project is taking Octopi to a new level of production. Only a fraction of its work is for its own brands, while the vast majority involves making products for about 20 other companies. Showaki began his company hoping to make 50,000 barrels of beer a year. However, beer now only accounts for about 20% of Octopi’s production.
“This is unique to our community to have something of this size,” said Chris Zellner, Waunakee’s village president. “The success that they’ve had here is amazing. The fact that they’ve needed to do what they’ve done has been a great thing for them and a great thing for Waunakee as well.”
The $50 million, 100,000-square-foot addition to the existing 65,000-square-foot brewery along Uniek Drive is nearing completion and has made room for 20 tanks, 13 of which have been installed ranging in size from 30,000 to 50,000 gallons. A new canning line is designed to accommodate nine different sizes of cans and is nearly four times faster than the existing canning line that will remain in use. There’s also much needed office space and more room for research and development.
Across the street, a $22 million, 200,000-square-foot warehouse, packaging and distribution center includes 14 loading docks and 10,000 square feet of office space. The packaging line will be used exclusively to create variety packs for customers and the expansive facility will allow Octopi to ship product faster, become more efficient and provide more options for its clients, thanks to a packaging line that puts individual cans into different size packages that are shipped nationwide and to countries in Europe and Asia.
“There are millions of cans going all around the world that say ‘Waunakee, Wis.,’” Showaki said. “We’re lucky to be in a position where we’re getting bigger and better clients who want more production volume, so we’re doing what we can to help them.”