The next time you crack open a cold Miller Lite on a warm day, there’s a chance that the energy used to brew the beer came from the very same sun that made you thirsty in the first place.

That’s because Chicago beer conglomerate MillerCoors has installed what it’s calling the largest photovoltaic solar array at any U.S. brewery – 10,000 solar panels stretched across 10 acres – on the grounds of its Irwindale plant.

“You can see the panels right off the freeway, said Kim Marotta, director of sustainability for MillerCoors, referencing the aesthetic changes to the brewery’s façade visible from the 210 freeway in the San Gabriel Valley.

The installation was done by San Mateo’s SolarCity, the nation’s largest solar services company. The company, chaired by Elon Musk, beat out 17 other bidders to win the contract. MillerCoors purchased the system and installation, though company representatives wouldn’t say for how much.

The solar array will produce 3.2 megawatts of power, enough energy to brew more than 7 million of the 86 million cases of beer produced at the facility every year, according to the company. To put that in another context, 3.2 megawatts of capacity can generate enough electricity over its expected life of 30 years to power more than 13,000 California homes for a year, Marotta said.

The decision to take a greener path to help satisfy its energy needs also will have a fiscal impact. The installation at the Irwindale plant qualifies the company for a 30 percent federal tax credit as part of a government program to incentivize clean-energy use, and it is expected to shave $350,000 off the brewery’s yearly electric bill, according to Marotta.

“We really want to push that needle, be a strong leader and be an example for other breweries and other industries,” she said.

Major contribution

On any given day, the solar panels will contribute between 7 percent and 40 percent of the brewery’s electrical energy, she said, adding that the wide range is due to variations in the weather.

Weather was a factor when MillerCoors officials, who had committed to installing solar power on a brewery, had to pick which of its eight U.S. plants would be the test case. Breweries in other sunny locales are in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

“California was always our top choice,” said Marotta, who is based in Milwaukee.

Though MillerCoors claims the largest solar array in the country, it is not the first to fuel the brewing process with energy drawn from the Sun. Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. placed 3,000 solar panels at its Newark, N.J., facility back in 2010, and some smaller craft breweries operate partly off of solar power, too, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico and Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, which proudly notes that it’s a solar-powered brewery on its bottle caps.

A representative from a prominent environmental policy group has also backed the brewer’s plan.

“This is a great thing,” said Peter Miller, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “It’s definitely on the leading edge of a trend, and it’s good news for California, for the environment, the economy and as a model for the rest of the country.”

Miller said market trends and government incentives are making clean-energy solutions more feasible for large manufacturers, even in crowded urban areas.

In addition to solar panels, wind energy is now a viable option for many ranchers, and industrial facilities can also capture methane and convert it to energy, he said.

That last tactic is also being employed by MillerCoors at its Irwindale brewery, as well as three of its other plants in the U.S. where wastewater is captured and transformed into what’s known as biogas.

Using this practice, the company said that it has reduced its traditional energy use over the past five years by 30 percent.

“We’re focused on becoming energy independent, taking energy off the grid and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” Marotta said.

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