Wine country a bright spot for solar
The next time you're out tasting in Oregon wine country, look up at the rooftop and you just might see a large solar array.
About 50 wineries across the state now use solar energy to help power their estates, having followed in the footsteps of pioneers like Dayton's Sokol Blosser Winery and Stoller Family Estate in the past decade.
And the movement is growing.
"For the wine industry here, sustainability is a big part of their brand, and it's a sincere part of the brand," says Alan Hickenbottom, principal at Latitude45 Associates. He's a longtime renewable energy and clean tech consultant who's helped about two dozen wineries install their systems.
"Solar is a visible display of that desire," Hickenbottom adds, while other sustainability efforts — such as skipping pesticides and using gravity-flow winemaking — aren't as noticeable to visitors.
Besides the green branding, solar is growing among wineries because it just makes logistical sense: Grapes love a south-facing slope, and so do solar panels.
At some of the wineries Hickenbottom has consulted with, "they've taken every last inch of the hills they could for grapes," leaving no room for solar panels.
Several dozen fans of wine and renewable energy recently had a chance to dig into both of those passions on a daylong wine tour led by Solar Oregon, a Portland nonprofit that helps educate the public and lobby for clean energy.
At one of the stops on a sunny Saturday in early May, they sipped glasses of pinot gris at Lenne Estate Winery in Yamhill, enjoying the panoramic view of the vineyard and Willamette Valley below.
They listened to the winemaker talk about producing wine on his 21-acre estate, and heard about the benefits of the new 4-kilowatt solar array that was installed in April. Basically it was easy, cost-efficient and just made sense.
"It's a small building, similar to a residential structure," says John Grieser, owner of Elemental Energy, which installed the array. "We have a microinverter behind a panel with a single circuit breaker. It just sits there quietly doing its job every day of the year."
The fifth annual Solar Wine tour comes at a pivotal time for solar energy in Oregon.
In March, the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association and Green Energy Institute released the Oregon Solar Plan, which calls for the state to generate 10 percent of its energy by solar by 2027, up from less than 1 percent now (a sliver of the state's renewable energy mix).
Hickenbottom looks to recent events, such as the outcry over Portland General Electric's plan to build new natural gas plants in Boardman, as a sign that the public is ready to rally for renewable energy.
"With advances in grid technology and economically large-scale solar, you will be able to make solar dispatchable," he says, using the term for being able to store excess energy and use it when it's needed. "That's the last hangup to renewables."
The tour highlighted the solar and other sustainable features at Lenne Estate and Stolle, as well as Ponzi Winery and Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood, J Christopher Wines in Newberg, and Ruby Vineyard in Hillsboro.
These and other local wineries have used a mix of state and federal tax credits, cash incentives from Energy Trust of Oregon, and U.S. Department of Agriculture REAP (Renewable Energy for America Program) grants available to agricultural businesses.
But now, some solar energy leaders are calling to end the cash incentives program for businesses, since the price has come down so much for private companies.
"Slowly, we're weaning ourselves off these incentives," Hickenbottom says, noting that the price for businesses is better now than it was when Oregon had the business energy tax credit. "We want to stand on our own two feet (as an industry)."