Oregon vintners utilize solar energy during harvest


Solar power is nothing new in vineyards. For as long as people have been growing grapes, the sun's rays have been harnessed to nourish vines and ripen fruit.

Now, some pioneering Oregon winemakers are using this ancient energy source to fuel their wineries as well.

Earlier this year, the Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee installed 144 solar panels that are expected to produce about 30 percent of the 70,000 to 80,000 kilowatt hours of electricity their facilities consume each year.

"That's a good deal," said Susan Sokol Blosser, the company's president. "The sun's not charging us."

Motivated by a combination of ideology and practicality, the company launched the project last year and began operating the system in January. Sokol Blosser is only the second Oregon winery to invest in solar technology &

following Stoller Wine Farm in nearby Dayton, which finished its project in 2006 &

but it doesn't expect to be the last.

"Wineries are definitely the early adopters of stuff like this," said Alex Sokol Blosser, Susan's son and vice president of the company. Not only is "sustainability" part of Oregon's brand as a winemaking region, but sloped, south-facing vineyards are the ideal spots for harvesting solar energy, said Alan Hickenbottom, director of the Northwest region for groSolar, the company that installed Sokol Blosser's system.

"This industry by far has the best sites," he said. "Vines love the same thing that panels do."

The Sokol Blosser Winery can expect a four- to five-year payback on its $260,000 investment, Hickenbottom said. Without generous cash rebates and tax benefits, however, it's unlikely the purchase would have penciled out based on energy savings alone, he said.

Interest in solar technology has accelerated thanks to multiple federal and state financial incentives &

systems bought in 2006 and 2007 enjoy a 30 percent federal tax credit &

up from 10 percent previously in addition to the 35 percent Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit and a cash rebate of up to $70,000 from the Energy Trust of Oregon, said Kacia Brockman, solar program manager for Energy Trust.

"It does take care of a big chunk," she said.

Energy Trust receives about $50 million a year for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs; funds are drawn from the — percent public purpose fee that Oregon's investor-owned utility companies charge their customers.

Since Energy Trust's solar program took effect in 2003, the capacity of solar panel installations across the state has tripled, Brockman said. In the last four years, the power-producing capacity of solar technology has grown by more than 2 megawatts; in the two decades prior, only 600,000 to 700,000 kilowatts' worth of system capacity was installed, she said.

Although solar power offsets only a small fraction of Oregon's energy consumption, Energy Trust's goal is to use public funds to establish an infrastructure for the market, Brockman explained.

"The purpose of the incentives is to bridge the gap between where we are today (and) where solar energy becomes cost-effective by itself without incentives."

Companies may sympathize with the objectives of solar power, but the best way to build momentum for the technology is to make the systems affordable &

that way, they present a reasonable way to "hedge against future energy prices," she said.

"For some businesses that invest in solar, it's a value-based decision. For others, it's a financially based decision," said Brockman. "I'm sure it's a bit of both for everybody."

Wineries aren't the only agricultural operations in Oregon to take advantage of the current incentives, she said. Holden Wholesale Growers in Silverton, Persephone Farm in Lebanon, and Pacific Botanicals in Grants Pass have also set up solar energy systems, Brockman said.

"It's a sound investment for a business thinking long-term," she said.

As technology improves and energy costs rise in the coming decades, savings will play a bigger role in the affordability of solar power, predicted Bill Stoller, owner of Stoller Wine Farm.

Already, the 57,000 kilowatt hours generated by Stoller's system in the past year have exceeded initial estimates by 20 to 25 percent, he said.

The winery's 200 solar panels have offset about 40 to 50 percent of the company's total energy use, he said.

"It's becoming more viable all the time, not just because of incentives," said Stoller. "Our experience is that we've gotten more than they projected."

For Alex Sokol Blosser, there's also a "cool" factor about the technology that enhances its environmentally friendly and cost-efficient appeal. Standing behind the 12 pole mounts that the solar panels are attached to, he hears the sound of the fan working within the system's inverter.

"Hear that humming?" he said. "It's producing power."

Anytime there's enough sun for a shadow to be visible, the system can produce electricity. Even on that first snowy day in January when the panels became functional, meters indicated that they generated a minute amount of energy.

"It's addicting to watch how much power you're producing," said Alex Sokol Blosser.

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