October 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Why Solar Makes Sense

Boutique wineries take advantage of incentives

by Jane Firstenfeld
Why Solar Makes Sense
Vineyards at Alban Winery

  • Depending on your power use, and the size of your installation, going solar can reduce or eliminate your electric bill
  • Experienced solar suppliers can evaluate your needs, devise creative solutions and handle all the paperwork.
  • State and federal tax credits, and accelerated depreciation mean most systems pay for themselves in just a few years.
  • Panels can last for decades, and systems can expand to accommodate growth.
  • State rebates and federal tax credits may be eliminated, so it's a great time to go solar.
With the climate going berserk, and fuel prices going through the roof, a growing number of vintners are finding sanity in solar power. The technology has improved, and tax breaks have increased, making this clean, infinitely renewable power source even more  appealing to those in search of true sustainability. It's a way both to fight global warming, and to put it to good use.

"My recommendation is to get it done as soon as you can," said Joey Milla, whose solar array went online at Milla Vineyards in Fresno, Calif., last October. Although the quote for his 11kw system was about $80,000, his net price, after utility rebate, was $58,000.

To learn more about how solar is adding to both the bottom lines and the sustainability of boutique wineries, we contacted seven that have recently invested in photovoltaic (PV) systems. They all agreed it was a smart move; none even hinted at a downside.

Robert Keenan Winery, in Napa's Spring Mountain AVA, now proudly promotes its "solar powered wine" on its labels and elsewhere. President Michael Keenan advised, "It's really a no-brainer. The response from the marketplace is so strong. It really seems to resonate."

"I'd tell owners they should look seriously at this," said Jim Stevens, co-founder of Dutcher Crossing Winery in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley. "It makes economic sense; it's great for the environment, and people coming through the winery will be thrilled. For a direct-marketing winery, it's even more important."
Debra Mathy purchased the Dutcher Crossing estate in early 2007, after Stevens, who remains active as a consultant to the winery, had researched the solar options. She is equally enthusiastic. "The people love it," she said. "They are thrilled. We couldn't ask for a better reception, from kids and young people right up to people in their 80s."

The process

Dutcher Crossing's 33kw system became operational in May 2007; the planning had begun much earlier. When Stevens and his partners designed the 8,000-case winery, completed in early 2005, they made sure it was "solar ready." The winery and estate house were sited with optimal exposure for maximum solar panels; Stevens was merely waiting, he said, "until the technology improved." Last year, he decided the time was right. He began his due diligence, and eventually signed on with SolarCraft (solarcraft.com), based in Novato, Calif. Mathy had just bought the business; at first tentative about the additional investment, she quickly came on board. A former teacher from Colorado, from an environmentally conscious family, "Solar was an easy fit," she determined. "And, it pays for itself fairly quickly.

"With 195 Mitsubishi high-efficiency panelsatop the southern sides of both winery and estate-house roofs, and additional panels on the ground, the system generates more than 50,000 kilowatt hours per year; enough, Stevens said, to power about 26 average California homes. Work started in March, and was completed by the end of April, about eight weeks start to finish.

The system currently provides about 85% of the entire property's needs. SolarCraft installed monitors in the system to keep track of energy generation and use.

Why Solar Makes Sense
Technicians from REC Solar install a ground-mounted array to serve the vineyard at Alban Winery.
All of the wineries are "tied to the grid," meaning that any excess power they generate flows back into the local utility system. At night, during inclement weather, or when winery energy use is high, they draw from the power company; they receive credit for whatever power they feed back into the system, and settle up at the end of each year. At least in Northern California, however, the PG&E utility welcomes participation, but not competition.

"PG&E actually downsized our installation," Keenen recalled; the utility refused to rebate what it felt was an oversized system. "There's no way you're going to become a net producer," Keenen conceded. He projects that the winery will grow from its 10,000-case annual production; if so, upsizing the solar array is still an option.

Unlike Dutcher Crossing, Keenan--set on a 100-year-old, thickly forested property purchased by Michael Keenan's late father, Robert, in 1974--was not built with solar in mind, and the winery faced special challenges. Keenan interviewed two vendors, and chose San Francisco's Sunlight Electric (sunlightelectric.com), in large part because of its unique proposal to mount 10 panels each on 29 poles at the end of vine rows. Inverters, which convert DC to AC power, are located on every fourth pole, Keenan explained, a crucial consideration, since DC current rapidly loses strength the farther it travels.

Why Solar Makes Sense
Sunlight Electric devised these pole-mounted arrays to catch the sun at the end of vineyard rows at Robert Keenan winery.
Sunlight Electric's Rob Ehrlichman noted, "Many wineries are, in essence, high-end retailers, so aesthetics are usually a concern." The pole-top arrays at Keenan were both a practical and an eye-appealing solution.

At Stoller Vineyards in Oregon's Willamette Valley, designed as a "green" winery, the solar panels are proudly on rooftop display. "There was no question about aesthetics," according to owner Bill Stoller. "On a sunny summer day, you really can't tell we have panels up there. It looks like windows on the top of the building."

Since the new winery was completed last year, the system has generated some 57,000 kilowatt hours, thanks in part to an unusually sunny summer, Stoller said. He believes his is the first solar winery in the Pacific Northwest, and it is also the first gold-certified LEED winery in the U.S., according to environmental consultants Green Building Services (learn more about LEED certification).

John Alban, owner of Alban Vineyards in the Central Coast's Arroyo Grande, best summed up the aesthetic question: "We find them beautiful by virtue of what they do." Alban chose a local company, REC Solar of San Luis Obispo (recsolar.com), for a three-part, 55kw installation with an array atop the winery, one on the ground for his residence and another ground-mounted to serve the vineyard. REC also supplied Milla's system.

The paybacks

Why Solar Makes Sense
Staglin Family Vineyard needed to situate its arrays in a leech field, where they could not sink pilings. Here, Sunlight Electric's Katrina Veerman smooths a concrete base to hold the panels.
At the moment, there seems to be a happy conspiracy among state and federal governments and local utilities to make solar as economically friendly as it is environmentally sound. And it's not just California wineries that can take advantage. Ehrlichman at Sunlight noted, "New York is a surprisingly good place for solar power. Even though they get 83% of the solar incidence that California gets, their electric rates are 8% higher."

California does rank No. 1 for solar benefits, according to Ehrlichman. Ranking U.S. states by solar incidence and electric rates, he said, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Minnesota, Texas and Arizona round out the top 10. Oregon is less advantageous, because hydro-electric provides ample low-cost power, but, he said, Oregon does offer very high tax incentives.

Anywhere in the U.S., a 30% federal tax credit and the option to depreciate the investment over just five years are icing on the cake for wineries that slash or even zero out power bills as soon as their systems begin operating.

Van Ballentine owns Napa's Ballentine Vineyards. When we spoke in August, he'd just gotten his first PG&E statement since his 87-kilowatt SolarCraft system went online in July. Zero power cost for his 11,000 case winery and 16-acre vineyard? Priceless. With a $200,000 PG&E rebate on his $600,000 investment, his five-year write-off and investment credits, he expects to pay off the system within a mere six years.

"If I generate more power than I use, I don't get paid," he conceded. "But I may use more power, because I'm going to put in some refrigeration." Napa's Staglin Family Vineyard, which produces 5,000 cases per year, went solar in June at the instigation of its accountant Elaine Honig, according to marketing and communications director Brandon Staglin. More than a numbers cruncher, Honig is a staunch environmentalist familiar with other solar winery operations, and with vendors.

"We wanted to generate our own power; not use so much fossil fuel, and devote more of our resources to making great wine," Staglin said. Upon Honig's recommendation, Sunlight Electric was chosen to install a system that will accommodate expected growth over the next five years. With 30% extra capacity, Staglin's first monthly power bill zeroed out, supplying more energy than needed for the winery's current production.

Why Solar Makes Sense
Dutcher Crossing's winery was built with solar in mind. Arrays are atop residence and winery, and also on the ground.
At Dutcher Crossing, Stevens said, "The beautiful part is, because of the rebates and the accelerated depreciation, the whole system costs about 30% of the list price."

Long life and clean energy

All of our winery contacts anticipate a long, useful life for their solar panels, ranging from 20 to 30 years or more. SolarCraft panels, for instance, come with a 25-year guarantee, but according to vice president Chris Bunas, they are expected to last 40-plus years.

The necessary inverters may not be as durable, with a projected life of perhaps 10 years, but they can be replaced; given enough space, each of the systems is expandable, simply by adding more panels.

Bill Stoller, who used the Portland branch of Dynalectric (dyna-portland.com), expects, however, that evolving technology may convince him to replace his panels sooner. "I believe they will come up with more efficient solar panels that will make it cost effective for me to change out in 10-15 years," he said. Since the winery's current production is 7,500 cases per year, and Stoller hopes to double that by the end of the decade, expanding the system may well be in the cards.

Winery Solar Suppliers
Akeena Solar, Inc. akeena.net
(888) 253-3628
EI Soultions eispv.com
(415) 721-0123
Marin Solar
(888) 56-SOLAR
Powerlight Corporation
(510) 540-0550
Premier Power  premierpower.com
(916) 939-0400
R E C Solar, Inc.
(888) OK-SOLAR
SolarCity solarcity.com
(888) SOL-CITY
SolarCraft solarcraft.com
(415) 382-7717
Sunlight Electric
(888) 786-8321
Sustainable  Energy Partners, LLC
(415) 793-5869
SPG Solar
(800) 815-5562
With no moving parts, PV systems are energy efficient in another way. All our winery sources agreed: The only maintenance they anticipate is cleaning off the solar panels on a regular basis. Those with roof-mounted panels said they will inspect and brush off their arrays once or twice a year.

Those like Milla, whose arrays are mounted close to the ground next to the winery, are more diligent. Joey Milla attached a car-wash brush to the extendable handle of aswimming-pool brush, which he uses weekly to clean off dust accumulation that would reduce the panels' efficiency.

Keenan, with its pole-top arrays, can tow a water tank to the vineyard to spray down the panels.

Bottom line and beyond

It's rare to write an article where everyone is in agreement, but this has been the exception. All our winery contacts were happy with their decisions, and their vendors. Several commented that they'd had "a gut instinct," about their (various) suppliers; that they spoke a common language. Each vendor came with sterling recommendations from other wineries; and each received kudos for professionalism throughout the process, including wrangling the all-important paperwork required for rebates and credits.

According to Ryan Park at REC, however, rebates may be dropped or reduced in states that now offer them, and the 30% federal tax credit is set to expire in 2008. "The rebates were originally designed to decline over time, and will continue to do so until the funding pools are exhausted," he said. "So for wineries that are interested in solar, this can mean saving thousands on installing this year vs. next year. The sooner they invest, the more they are going to save." Although Park said that the industry is lobbying to preserve the federal tax credits, as of now, "In order to receive this, a winery must install a solar electric system before the end of 2008. We are working hard as an industry to extend them, but right now, nothing is for sure."

"As long as you have enough cash," Keenan advised, "It's a great opportunity." By going solar soon, wineries can cultivate eco-bragging rights and harvest fiscal bonanzas. But unlike taxes, tax credits are not a sure thing. So, to avoid a solar stampede, best get started right away.

LEED Certification Recognizes 'Green' Operations
Why Solar Makes Sense
When Bill Stoller decided to build his new 7,500-case winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley, solar power was just one of the green elements he determined to incorporate. He started construction in November, 2003, but escalating material prices forced a recess for some re-evaluation. He trimmed down his plans by about 10-15%, completed the winery last year, and in the process, made Stoller Vineyards the first LEED Gold certified winery in the nation.

He attained the status with the help of Green Building Services (GBS), a design, construction and consulting firm with offices in Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. LEED, the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system that provides nationally recognized standards for what constitutes a "green" building. Structures are rated on a point scale, with 69 the highest rating. Stoller achieved 46 points to earn its gold certification.

"A large contribution to earning this level was the solar installation," according to Nina Tallering of GBS, which got involved early in Stoller's design and construction process. "Other factors are taken into consideration, such as water-saving and energy-saving measures that, like solar, may have some higher upfront costs," Tallering said. "But looking at the life cycle of the building, these measures will save money over time."

Stoller's design is energy efficient, with thicker walls, subterranean cellars, lots of windows and skylights on the north side for natural light. The cellar is not air conditioned, but has a sensor system that automatically pulls in air if it's cooler outside. Stoller surrounded the structures with natural vegetation. "Our landscaping only required water to get started; it's now self-sustaining," Stoller said. "We collect rainwater on the roof and put it into a pond we built," which not only satisfies fire department requirements for buildings without hydrant access, but provides a welcoming habitat for migrant ducks and geese.
Although going LEED Gold is simpler for new construction, another category, LEED EB, is available for existing buildings, certifying the ongoing operations and maintenance of a structure, Tallering said.

The certification itself is free, but achieving it does require expert help, Stoller said. "It's almost imperative to have a consultant. I can't imagine doing it on your own."

The upfront costs, however, including a 10-20% premium for environmental upgrades and consultant fees, are offset, Stoller feels, by "personal satisfaction, the ability to save energy and save materials. The world is finite," he pointed out. "You can't just look at it as an endless stream."

For more about GBS, visit greenbuildingservices.com. The U.S. Green Building Council provides information on LEED certification at usgbc.com.

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