Northwest Arkansas Eureka Pizza Chain Prepares to Install Solar Panels

Northwest Arkansas Eureka Pizza Chain Prepares to Install Solar Panels
Eureka Pizza owner Rolf Wilkin is having solar panels installed at the Leverett Avenue location in Fayetteville. It could help cut his energy use by between 30 and 50 percent. (Ryan Miller)

When Rolf Wilkin first began researching commercial use of solar power he wanted to know if it would make sense for one of his nine Eureka Pizza locations in northwest Arkansas.

Wilkin eventually concluded that it would be senseless not to make the switch.

He was intrigued by the idea of making his operation more environmentally friendly. An article in the Wall Street Journal detailed that the cost of solar panels and the difficulty of installation were declining, while availability was on the rise.

Then, he found out about local and federal incentive programs for businesses that use solar power. That sold him on making the $40,000 investment to have Sun City Energy install 40 solar panels. Those panels will help provide the electricity needed to run the 2,500 SF at Eureka Pizza’s Leverett Avenue location in Fayetteville.

Theoretically, a switch to solar can cut an annual electricity bill by 30 to 50 percent. Plus, Wilkin said, after factoring in federal and local incentives, including tax credits on top of rebate opportunities through the GridSmart program offered by Southwestern Electric Power Co., the cost to Wilkin will wind up being closer to $12,000.

Wilkin did have to pay the full amount on the front end. But the savings realized through the incentive programs lessened the total financial commitment for 2013.

“You have to have the money upfront, but it’s a no-brainer,” said Wilkin, who opened his first Eureka Pizza in 1992. “Who could imagine you could do this for the price of a used car? I looked into it and the numbers just worked out.

“Suddenly, it’s a good business decision. I bet you’ll see more of this.”

Wilkin said he would evaluate the energy savings and the potential for additional incentive programs to see if the move makes sense for more of his stores. It definitely made sense for the location less than a mile from the University of Arkansas.

Sun City Solar has six offices in four states and was the first solar energy company licensed for commercial projects in Arkansas. While its customer base is about 70 percent residential, it has been involved with other commercial jobs, including the installation of panels at the UA recreation center in 2009, World Gym in Lowell and the North Little Rock Electric Department.

John Gerrard of the company’s west Arkansas office said he believes Eureka Pizza is the state’s first solar-powered pizza operation. By making the switch, the business should be able to cut down on its overhead costs.

How It Works

How exactly does the solar panel save money?

Arkansas is what Gerrard describes as a “net metering state.” That means any unused kilowatts of energy generated by the solar panels are funneled into the energy grid. In essence, the meter measuring usage can spin backwards.

Eureka Pizza, for example, would be credited for any stored solar energy created before the store opens. The surplus then is subtracted from total kilowatts used during the day. For an operation like Eureka Pizza that can accommodate a single catering request of up to 1,000 pizzas, there’s a need to trim energy costs.

“If you’re making more energy than you’re using, you’re essentially putting money into the [power company] bank until the sun goes down and you start to use those credits up,” Gerrard said.

Installation at Wilkin’s store should take less than two days and then he can start seeing the potential savings. At the end of the year Wilkin, or any business working through the incentive plan offered by Swepco, gets a check back based on a formula that measures solar energy use. A similar program is available for residential users as well, Gerrard said.

Solar technology has been an option for about 40 years, but it has become more practical thanks to improved technology, ease of installation and the potential for federal, state and local rebates.

That’s what hooked Wilkin. He likes the idea of making the environmentally friendly choice and said he’s considering a way to showcase real-time solar production and energy saved on a display in the store.

But as a businessman, the money saved makes solar power even more appealing.

“Environmentally, it makes sense,” Wilkin said. “And it definitely makes sense financially.”