Latest Pairing: Wine & Renewable Energy

DaleseSolarThree local vineyards are proving that the 8,000-year-old art of winemaking can co-exist happily alongside new environmentally-friendly, cost-saving technologies.

Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula and Brengman Brothers/Crain Hill Vineyards across the bay in Leelanau County are going big with harnessing solar power. Meanwhile, the under-construction Mari Vineyards, also on Old Mission, is taking a dramatic approach by using wind power for energy and underground tunnels, which offer consistent temperature and humidity, for producing and storing wine.

Solar panels really started catching on in area vineyards nearly two years ago when Brengman Brothers on Center Highway became what is believed to be the first 100 percent solar powered commercial winery in Michigan. And they did it in style. Unlike traditional static panels, their Sun Tracker panels adjust to the sun’s position.

The system, installed by Leelanau Solar of Northport, even has a wind speed sensor that parks the panel in a horizontal position during high winds.

“It was a very good business decision,” said Robert Brengman. “And we’ve had no problems.”

A 30 percent investment tax credit helped make the deal possible.

“The costs we’re saving should pay off installation in seven years,” he said. “After that, it’s basically free electrical power.”

He advised anyone considering alternative energy needs to do lots of homework before making an investment.

“We spent a good quarter of a year getting proposals and having potential suppliers educate us,” Brengman said. “We considered wind and thought about putting a static solar system on our flat roof. But Sun Tracker was the best option for us.”

The panels are producing the hoped-for 30,000 kilowatt (kW) hours of clean energy each year. That’s enough to offset 30 tons of carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, Chateau Chantal Winery and Bed & Breakfast has just installed the largest solar array at a winery in Michigan. It’s too early to measure results, but CEO and President Marie-Chantal Dalese is optimistic.

“We’ve been harvesting grapes on this farm for 29 years and are now excited to diversify by harvesting the sun’s energy,” said Dalese.

Vineyards use a lot of power. In addition to normal power usage from the lights, heating and refrigeration found in many businesses, modern vineyards have big electric bills during crush time in October to run bottling equipment, presses, crusher/destemmers, filtration systems and other wine-making equipment. Chateau Chantal also operates an 11-bed inn.

Even so, Dalese thinks the 148.5 kW solar array will offset approximately 40 percent of the operation’s energy needs. The array’s annual production of 172,351 kW is equivalent to saving CO2 emissions from the electricity use of 18.2 homes for one year.

“So far, so good,” she said. “We’re hoping for a five-year payback with the grants. It may be a bit slower. But the grants and tax credits have really helped.”

Dalese got word in early July that the winery has been awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant for an as-yet undisclosed amount. She had applied for a grant covering 25 percent of project costs.

“I’d encourage other agribusinesses to investigate USDA grants,” she said. “Also, accelerated depreciation for equipment because of the connection to renewables is something folks should consider.”

Northwest Michigan businesses looking into solar energy are well-placed to find local help. The array was designed, engineered and installed by Harvest Energy Solutions, a Jackson-headquartered renewable energy company that specializes in agribusiness and rural residential solar installations in the Midwest. Chateau Chantal’s solar PV system is made almost entirely with parts and equipment made in Michigan, from the Harvest Energy Solutions’ manufactured racking and clips to the Michigan-made solar panels.

Chateau Chantal was also awarded a Pure Michigan Business Connect grant, a program that provides matching funds up to $50,000 to companies to pay for innovative resources or solutions from Michigan-based companies.

At the third winery – Mari Vineyards now under construction on Center Road – owner Marty Lagina is taking a different route to environmental progress by utilizing wind turbine power and by building an extensive underground system for winemaking and aging.

The wind turbine, which Lagina’s own Heritage Sustainable Energy bought late last year from Traverse City Light & Power and then restored, sits on M-72 West in Elmwood Township. How much the turbine will contribute to Lagina’s goal of making Mari Vineyards carbon neutral – that is, with a net zero carbon footprint – is not yet known.

Head winemaker Sean O’Keefe acknowledged there are many unknowns – but much excitement – in “creating something from scratch.”

The essential approach is to reduce energy needs.

“Our emphasis is on passive techniques that help us avoid costs,” he said.

Those techniques include a gravity-flow winery to avoid pumps, earth-sheltered spaces that not only assist in the wine-aging process but also use less energy than traditional above-ground structures.

While the facility will have low thermal requirements due to it being largely underground, the heating needs it does have will be met by using a high-efficiency, smoke-free wood gasification burner that will use as much dead ash as possible for fuel.

Solar power is also being seriously considered. “We’ve got a location on the property already picked out,” O’Keefe said.

The above-ground structure will house a 1,500 square-foot tasting room on the main floor and offices on the second floor. The 3,000 square-foot underground space dug into the side of the hill and heavily reinforced – a task that caused some delays – will be used for wine processing equipment and several wine caves used for aging red wines. Construction is slated to be done by early October.