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Making Michigan wine with cheaper solar energy

Crain Hill Vineyards in Leelanau County is touted as the first in Michigan to run 100% on solar power, and a start-up energy business sees an opportunity for homes and farms because of the steep price drops to install solar in the last year.

Robert Brengman owns Crain Hill Vineyards with his two brothers. He says it’s been a goal from the beginning to tread lightly in this place.

"We're looking at having a zero carbon footprint on this vineyard, in this winery."

“We’re looking at having a zero carbon footprint on this vineyard, in this winery. I mean that to me is exciting,” Bregnman said. “I think it’s a little part. And we’re trying to do our part of keeping this beautiful area the way it is.”

They won’t be buying electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. There are three new solar arrays mounted on steel poles on a south facing slope that are within sight of the winery’s tasting room.

Tom Gallery designed the system for Crain Hill and says the arrays are built to gather as much sunlight as possible.

The arrays automatically track the sun both horizontally and vertically from dawn to dusk.

A solar tracker produces maybe 30% more electricity than a stationary panel, and the extra hardware adds an extra 5-10% to the overall cost.

Gallery, a retired engineer from Ford, formed a small company called Leelanau Solar with energy consultant Steve Smiley, about a year ago.

Smiley says the solar trackers they installed at Brengman Brothers Winery are the first and largest in northern Michigan.

“Operation and maintenance is nearly zero,” said Gallery. “And for 25 years they’re going to have the same price for their energy no matter what happens to Consumers Energy rates.”

The solar arrays are expected to last at least 25 years, and Gallery expects they’ll pay for themselves in seven.

He says in the last year costs have dropped dramatically, compared with just three years ago – prices have gone from around $5 a watt to $3 a watt.   

But large up-front costs are still the big issue that stops a lot of people from going solar, Gallery says.

The three arrays at Crain Hill price out at about $75,000.

“You recover it slowly. You get your grant and then you get your investment tax credit and then you get your depreciation,” he said. “So a lot of small farms don’t have the money to invest up-front.”

For those who can afford the up-front expense, the fixed electric rate can add stability in a sometimes volatile energy market.

Mark Clevey of the Michigan Energy Office says that’s a main reason why solar is rapidly expanding in the U.S. and around the world.

"It's reached a tipping point in terms of solar being cost effective against alternatives, including wind and most fossil fuels."

“It’s reached a tipping point in terms of solar being cost effective against alternatives, including wind and most fossil fuels,” said Clevey.

At Crain Hill only a small amount of wine is produced on site so electricity needs are modest.  The biggest uses are for heating and air conditioning for the tasting room.

During the summer, the solar arrays produce a lot more energy than is used, so the surplus goes onto the electric grid and is banked as a credit with Consumers Energy.

Then in cloudier months the winery draws from its account.

On sunny days, the electric meter actually runs backwards, showing power going out rather than coming in. When the arrays were first switched on, that’s where you could find Robert Brengman, around the side of the building sitting in a chair watching the meter spinning backwards.

“I was just in awe. Really was. It was just really cool,” he said.

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