Steep & Brew Solar

The new solar panels on Steep & Brew's corporate office in Monona. The panels should provide 80 percent of the company's electricity. 

Many coffee companies have long since hopped on the sustainable practices bandwagon by opting for fair trade beans, but Mark Ballering, founder and owner of Steep & Brew, is one step ahead — or above. He’s just installed solar panels on the roof of the company’s corporate building in Monona.

“I hate to say it seems obvious, but it’s kind of an obvious right thing to do,” Ballering said. “We’re very dependent on our community where our customers live and with that comes a responsibility ... Everybody sort of relies on everyone else.”

This spring, Steep & Brew, a coffee roasting company, installed 315 solar panels on its corporate building. The project is the largest solar installation by a coffee roaster in the Midwest, according to SunPeak, which completed the installation.

SunPeak is a Madison-based developer of commercial solar systems, and has also installed projects at Ale Asylum Brewery and Central Storage & Warehouse.

The sustainable coffee movement started almost 20 years ago, when the public became aware that many international small-scale coffee bean farmers were being offered paltry prices, imprisoning them in a cycle of poverty.

This was partly due to a 2000 investigative television report on coffee plantations that exposed these practices. There were also environmental concerns about the way coffee was being harvested: too many pesticides and not enough trees.

In response, people started pushing for a more socially conscious cup of coffee. Starbucks started offering Fair Trade in response to protests and petitions. In 2009, Fair Trade Certified coffee imports amounted to over 110 million pounds.

Plenty of coffee companies in Madison have sustainable practices on the sourcing end of their operation. Ancora offers organic and fair trade beans. JBC Coffee Roasters in Madison has traveled to countries like Ethiopia, El Salvador and Colombia to set up partnerships. Just Coffee Cooperative is Madison's only 100 percent fair trade roaster, and visits multiple international farmer cooperatives every year. Michelangelo's Coffee House sells only fair trade coffee, and their website says they are a “full-on committed partner” with their roasters and small farmers.

In some ways, Steep & Brew has long been ahead of the coffee curve. In 1997, it became the first certified Fairtrade coffee retailer in the US. (Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA are two different certification organizations.) Today, while Steep & Brew continues to offer a line of Fairtrade coffees, it still is not completely fair trade. Ballering doesn’t see this as viable, as there isn’t enough variety and consistency in Fairtrade products, he said.

Instead, Steep & Brew’s next step in sustainability comes at the other end of production — at the company’s joint corporate office, distribution center and roasting facility, where the solar panels were installed.

Ballering had been interested in the idea of solar a few years ago, but at that time the price and lifespan of the panels didn’t add up to a sound financial investment. The panels lasted for about ten years, and the investment would have taken about ten years to break even.

“Basically, you got to the end, you kind of broke even, and had to scrap the system,” Ballering said.

When Ballering began exploring the idea again earlier this year, he discovered it was now more financially viable. Ballering’s panels have a 30 year lifespan, and according to SunPeak, it should only take about seven years to regain the investment.

The system is expected to fulfill 80 percent of the company's electrical needs. Because of the summer sun, the panels have actually been producing a surplus of energy, Ballering said. The system has been operating for a month, and has saved the equivalent of seven barrels of oil or seven tons of CO2 in the process.

Over the life of the system, the panels should save roughly 2,100 tons of CO2 and generate about $726,000 of electricity.

Ballering doesn’t think he’s reached the finish line of sustainability. He’s trying to develop new packaging with less waste, and is looking for a way to distribute the company’s coffee chaff, a light feathery substance that comes off the bean in the roasting process, to individuals who can use it as bedding for chicken and geese.

Ballering would recommend going solar to other business owners, although he acknowledges it’s a long-term commitment.

“I think at the end of the day for small business people, they've used to being a little bit more on the edge and take a few more risks. So if anybody’s going to do that, it’s probably going to be that group of people,” Ballering said.

Ballering has gotten good feedback from employees who appreciate the company’s progressive stance, but is unsure how it will affect customers.

“You go, ‘I’ll do this, but will this really matter to any customers?’” Ballering said. “It’s that sort of nagging unknown, but you say ‘I think it’s the right thing to do, and I hope others in the community would feel the same way.’”

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