California’s Central Coast wine region ranks as one of the top viticultural areas on the planet, with more than 300 wineries spread across the area’s rolling hills and lush valleys. A growing number of local winemakers’ share a commitment to sustainability, which includes investing in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that offset electricity costs with the same clean energy source that gives life to their vineyards.
Templeton-based Castoro Cellars was an early Central Coast solar adopter and has continued to add new PV capacity since its first installation in 2006. The company’s initial systems power its Cobble Creek Vineyards’ tasting room, a nearby house and a small well pump. The 18 kilowatts (KW) of arrays built by REC Solar incorporate both ground-mount and rooftop solar elements and generate more than 30,000 kilowatt-hours (KWh) annually.
“The reason we went solar was that it was the right thing to do,” said Niels Udsen, owner of Castoro Cellars. “Our original goal on the first project was to get to the first tier of power on the Pacific Gas & Electric rates. Even then, we were in the fifth tier with a lot of our power for the first one, so it didn’t take that long for it to pay for itself, like three to five years.”
The second round of commercial solar installations at Castoro took place in 2012 and consist of a pair of ground-mount arrays and a rooftop system built by REC Solar at the company’s Dos Viñas estate vineyards. The 61.4 KW installed capacity of the three systems generates some 106,500 KWh per year, offsetting nearly 100% of the electricity requirements of a pair of sizeable well pumps and the adjoining apartment, according to Udsen. The installation also paid for itself in a few years.
While a true believer in sustainable, environmentally conscious agriculture practices, the Castoro proprietor also sees the economic benefits of solar. “Financially, it makes sense; if you’re a long-term thinker, it’s completely rational to do,” he explained.
Castoro’s opening forays into solar will soon be eclipsed by a new project that dwarfs the existing systems in size, power generation—and return on investment. Construction by REC Solar is under way on a 625 KW ground-mount installation that will cover three acres in the Stone’s Throw vineyards where muscat canelli grapes grew until recently. The system is scheduled to come online before the end of the year, and when completed, will produce 1.042 million KWh of clean energy annually.
“We would’ve done it many years earlier, but we had to get sole ownership of the property before we could, and we did that last year,” Udsen said. “The system is for our processing facility, where we have fermentation tanks, refrigeration, bottling lines, compressors, whatever it takes to run a good-size winery. We’re shooting for a goal of 100% offset.”
As with all the Castoro solar systems, Udsen will pay for the new installation, an investment that he’s happy to make. “I’m lucky enough to have a good enough cashflow and revolving line of credit that I’ve never specifically financed any of the projects. I’m paying for it as part of our doing business.”
“We’re paying over $250,000 in power bills a year, and it keeps going up,” he said. “With the offset from the new solar setup, I can take that cashflow down to about $30,000 with just the financing aspect of it, and we then have more than $200,000 that can be applied each year to paying off the system. Along with the tax credits we get, it won’t take much to get payback, somewhere between four and five years.”
The Stone’s Throw project will benefit from California’s aggregate net metering (NEM-A) program for agriculture, which allows landowners to choose the best location for solar or wind on their property and then use the power generated to offset their bills from any of their electricity meters on the same or contiguous properties.
“I didn’t realize when we were first getting the project quoted that with the new net metering systems, you can put any meter on the property on that same system, it doesn’t have to be set directly to the meter, “Udsen noted. “There will be several different pumps included, and one of them is quite a large irrigation well pump.”
In addition to its fine pinots and zins, Castoro is also known for its live music programming, especially the annual Beaverstock Festival, a fundraiser for the Templeton public schools, which last year featured established and up-and-coming acts such as War, Dawes and La Santa Cecilia. A friend’s mobile solar generator has helped power the event in recent years, but Udsen would like to have a more substantial solar presence at future shows.
The music fest is not the only place where Udsen wants to add more solar. “We’re building a distillery, and initially there’s no power on the site, so we’re using a generator. Once we get the power, it would be prime spot for solar everywhere up there.”
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