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Wineries and Thieves Go Solar (California, USA)

Credits: ©2009 Napa Valley Register

Mike Treleven reports in Napa Valley Register (27 November 2009) on a problem plaguing wineries that have been adopting solar technologies. His article follows: Solar energy is hot. Not just with wineries attempting to lessen their carbon footprints — but also with thieves. Numerous Napa Valley wineries have been victimized by thieves lurking in the night and stealing their solar arrays. A single panel is worth about $1,000, measures two feet by three feet and weighs around 35 pounds. Between June 2008 and late September 2009, Napa County saw 14 solar thefts and two attempted thefts. Of the 14 thefts, two were in the city of Napa and the rest were at wineries around the valley, Napa County Sheriff’s Capt. Tracey Stuart. More than 400 panels, worth about $400,000, have been stolen.

 

Solar Winery Far Niente

The Far Niente winery, located in California's Napa Valley region, has implemented its very own floating solar power system by installing photovoltaic panels on pontoons in an irrigation pond. The system cost $4.5 million dollars, and consists of 1,000 solar panels which are located on a number of floating pontoons. The total system, which includes an additional 1,300 panels located in adjacent land, will generate around 400 kilowatts, more than is required by the winery. ©2008 Inhabitat

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, took a step toward slowing the thefts by including provisions against solar thefts in the Solar Technology Roadmap Act. His additions will require the Secretary of Energy to create a plan to protect against solar panel thefts and create equipment serial number registry that will be easily accessible.

ZD Wines on the Silverado Trail has been a victim of a solar panel theft twice. “This won’t happen again,” Brett de Leuze, president ZD Wines said.

He said the winery now has a permanent solar installation. And every array has a “Property of ZD Wines” sticker on it, which he said does not easily come off.

ZD Wines considers itself to be on the leading edge of protecting solar panels after having them stolen twice. “If someone tries to resell the panels ... it is blatantly clear it is the property of someone else. This should make it harder to pawn off,” de Leuze said. “It is our responsibility to take care of our property. We felt a little stupid the second time.

“There are lot of panels out there. We never expected this. We were stunned. It was not in our consciousness to think people would steal them,” de Leuze said.

Honig Vineyard and Winery also had its solar panels stolen multiple times in the past year and a half. The last time, three culprits were caught in the act by Napa County Sheriff’s deputies.

Honig described the solar thefts as an epidemic in the Napa Valley. But he said he believes more people are starting to be proactive in protecting their investments.

Honig gives a thumbs up to Thompson’s provision for creating a registry because there is not national data base for law enforcement. “If our arrays were some stolen and recovered in Oklahoma, there is no way to know they are from Napa Valley.

“What Mike (Thompson) is trying to do is proactive. His initiative is trying to get in front of the problem,” Honig said. “It is frustrating. We are doing something good to benefit society in the long run. I never thought people would come onto the property and steal solar panels.”

Jody Harris of Harris Ranch Napa Valley applauds anything that will help cut down on solar array thefts. His winery, located on a one-lane road, had 30 panels stolen in September.

After the theft, Harris described it “as a pain to get the system back up.” He has since had security bolts installed on the system that sits on the ground.

“We were insured, so we covered. It’s not like they came into the house and stole something that was sentimental,” Harris added.

He said the theft was a “tremendous learning experience. It’s a sign of the times. We lock the doors a lot more often now.” Neighbors now watch what is going on around them.

To protect themselves from future thefts, the solar set up is connected to an alarm and video camera system have been tied into the home security system, which has also been updated, according to Harris. “It may seem a bit extreme.” But he said it is necessary to protect their investment.

“I’ve lived with an alarm system, but have never had to rely on it,” Harris said.

Dan Sullivan, owner and founder of Sunlock Solar Security Systems, in Yountville, said he has been doing a brisk business. “Business is booming unfortunately.”

Sullivan can install a soft wire cable with a low voltage current running through it. If thieves try to cut the wire or don’t see it and tear it while trying to remove a solar panel and tear it, an alarm goes off that is linked to a central dispatch.

Sunlock Solar Security installs a hard wired system that Sullivan said is best installed at the same time as the arrays.

“It’s a simple design,” Sullivan said. “No system is 100 percent. But, I think ours gives the greatest amount of lead time to get authorities to the scene.”

He said an alarm set up does not sell itself. “It can be a hard sell to a winery that has not be hit yet,” Sullivan said. Depending on the size of the solar panel system the cost can range from $5,000 to $25,000.

Julie Blunden, vice president of public policy and corporate communications, at solar panel manufacturer Sunpower, said when systems are being installed, the goal should be to try and make it as difficult as possible so that the arrays can’t be quickly and easily dismantled.

Something as simple as a chain link fence around the array system can slow down thieves.

“When we talk to a client when designing a system, we address the benefit of installing on a roof as opposed to the ground,” Blunden said. “Security is one of the things we consider when talking with a customer interested in installing a system. There is increasing demand for security. It is something that should be looked at.”

 

The following article by Cathy Fisher in Wine Business Monthly June 2008 continues to offer a viable perspective on the solar wine industry, although incentives information is out-of-date. For up-to-date info on incentives across the US, visit DSIRE.org

Boosted by favorable tax incentives and rebates, the demand for solar systems has been building steadily as more and more people feel called to do their part for the environment. But with growth comes change, both welcome and frustrating. As of late April 2008, the uncertain future of the government's 30 percent one-time Investment Tax Credit (ITC), set to expire at the end of this year, has many in the solar industry (and wineries that are ready to make solar purchases) wondering and waiting. But on the welcome side, ingenuity in technology is allowing solar to be purchased and installed in unique ways. "This industry--which is increasing even more rapidly than the tech industry did--is so positively charged right now," said Robert Friedman, commercial sales manager for agriculture and government for REC Solar, Inc. "At the end of this decade, it will be standing on its own."

Incentives
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade association for the solar industry, grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) installed in the U.S. grew 45 percent from 2006 to 2007 (see Solar Year in Review sidebar). Much of this solar growth has been spurred on by a generous federal incentive set to expire at the end of 2008, which has solar customers asking, "What is the fate of the 30 percent federal tax break?"

The government has not yet made this clear, but as of April 11, the Senate passed an amendment to the U.S. Housing Bill which favors extending the tax credits for renewable energy. Should the bill get the stamp of approval by the House and the president (who threatened veto on previous versions asking for reductions in oil subsidies to pay for the incentive), the Investment Tax Credit would continue through 2016 for commercial installs. Without the extension, the incentive will return to a 10 percent tax credit with no accelerated depreciation, and many in the industry believe that the market will essentially freeze.

"The political will is there, so I think there's a fair chance that it will be renewed," said John Whisman, commercial sales manager for Stellar Energy Solutions, Inc. "Right now, the issue holding things up is that even the Democratic leadership in the House is adamant about knowing where the funds to pay for it will come from."

Given the situation, solar companies are scrambling to get their proposals in so they can get into the queue as soon as possible. For instance, Erik Bakke of SunTechnics Energy Systems, Inc. said that "in order for customers to qualify for the federal tax break, they must get their order in to us by the end of June (for larger systems) or July.

"But the real issue is getting it installed in time," he added, noting that they work to complete installations by November 15 to allow utility companies time to check that the systems are working properly so credits can be given.

Outlook
Within the solar industry, many are optimistic that the credit will be extended. "The credit may sunset and come back in 2009, but I think it's going to be extended this year," said REC Solar's Friedman. "Because of all the big projects being announced, such as large power plants, it would be ridiculous to announce them if legislation is not coming back." Chris Bunas, vice president for SolarCraft Services' solar electric division, said that the potential sun-setting of the tax credit has really hit people over the head and has gotten things moving. "Most people know their systems have to be installed by end of year, so there's been a sense of urgency to move forward; there's been less hemming and hawing," he said.

Now is the time to get on board, Bunas advises, and that with the industry being so tied to incentives, it's never going to be as good or less expensive again. "But, we're going to be dead in the water come January 1 if there's no tax credit, or even in this year's fourth quarter, because no one will be ordering," he said.

"It's never been so hard to sell something that everyone wants," said Whisman of Stellar Energy Solutions. "The devil is in the details, and it only gets harder as rebates go down."

Bakke of SunTechnics agrees that when the ITC sunsets, "We're going to have a problem. It may just take a new president," he said.

Rob Hichborn, commercial sales director for Premier Power, feels that the government's going to have to renew the federal tax break. "If they take it away it will be hard to justify buying solar," he said. "When commercial customers take the rebate and the tax break, they can cover up to 75 percent of their cost, so taking away that 30 percent would make it really tough."

Materials and Timing
If the tax credit reverts from 30 to 10 percent, financing of any type immediately becomes more difficult, making solar's near future an uncertainty. Even with incentives in place, installing a solar system can be expensive. And with the demand of solar materials severely outstripping supply, in part due to generous incentives in Europe, prices remain high.

Whisman pointed out, however, that many new manufacturing facilities will be coming online over the next year, including those that produce silicon wafers and those that manufacture modules. "Some plants are being built in America, Japan, Spain and many in China as well," he said.

As a result, prices are expected to drop in late 2009 and late 2010. "But I don't know if that will change the economics to the end user that much since as the price for materials drops, the rebates and tax credits will drop as well," he explained.

The bottom line, therefore, may not be that much different. "The future mix of market conditions and incentive conditions is very difficult to predict," he said.

The current availability of materials could also change quickly, some say within a course of weeks. Seventy percent of U.S. solar installations are in California, with other states such as New Jersey, New York and Arizona coming on in bigger numbers. Internationally, the U.S. trails Germany, Japan and Spain (respectively) in solar usage.

But people still have time this year to get into contracts, depending on the size of their systems. The reality at this point, however, is that the incentive is scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2008. And although previous efforts to extend the ITC have been voted down, lobbyists are working diligently to get something in place by the end of the year.

"Here we are again, talking about tight second and third quarters," said Bunas. "And, even if you get the contract signed but you don't have panels, that's a problem. You won't get credit in that case."

"We're still making deals for projects that can be completed in 2008, but only until mid-summer," said Whisman of Stellar Energy Solutions.

Another growing pain of the solar industry's growth is that a limited amount of trained installers exist to handle the demand. "Just because sales double doesn't mean we can install all the systems," said Bunas. "The industry is going to have issues getting it all done."

California Solar Initiative
Aside from the federal tax break, the popular California Solar Initiative rebate program is still active. It was initiated by the California Public Utilities Commission at the beginning of 2007 as part of Governor Schwarzenegger's $3.3 billion "Million Solar Roofs Program," which aims to create 3,000 megawatts (MW) of new solar-produced energy by 2017. Rebate incentives are designed using several different incentive steps. As megawatt milestones are reached, market demand pushes the program to the next step and rebate amounts are decreased each time.

Even though it has many years of life left, financing will become harder because rebate levels continue to drop, even faster than anticipated. But the bigger issue, according to Bunas, is that while the rebate amounts continue to decrease, the cost of materials keeps increasing. In theory, incentives will fade away as solar companies reduce their prices, but that is not the case yet since demand is still outrunning supply.

Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards in Napa said he was happy to have gone solar before any incentive uncertainty. The winery's system went online in 2004 with a 129kw system, and is now adding an additional 100kw system to cover other areas of production. "We started work on a second system a year ago and got signed up with rebates early on," said Shafer. "I am so glad we got ours in when we did--the last time I checked, PG&E rates weren't going down."

Mixed Needs
As solar adoption continues to boom, those working in the industry find their role expanding to meet the mixed needs of wineries jumping on board. A number of factors are considered when designing a solar system, such as the winery's energy usage and goals, available space and, of course, financial picture. Staying on top of financing vehicles is a primary role of solar consultants today.

Creativity is a constant in the solar industry, too, especially when incentives are in jeopardy. But whatever the situation, it's never too late for wineries to consider buying into solar technology, says REC Solar's Friedman. "If you're talking to an integrator who's been around a while, they can really help you make sense of the entire situation: financing, rebates, technology, etc. It's highly consultative."

A solar consultant's role is to guide people through the process and realize where the value is. "Everyone has a different finance situation, and each organization has different points of value in their financial model (such as owning versus leasing, their tax situation, etc.)," said Whisman. "There are many implications to all these options that we have to look at in order to find the right match. It's rarely very obvious."

And everybody has their own reasons for going solar. For example, some wineries participate in solar mainly because they know the message it sends is attractive to customers. "Customers like to see the green angle," said Friedman.

Going solar also does not have to be about eliminating your entire energy bill but rather looking at many factors to come up with the best fit for your winery. For example, wineries can choose to just knock off their peak usage. "With regard to solar energy displacing grid energy, there's a sweet spot," said Friedman. "Depending on your electricity consumption and your PG&E rate schedule, too much solar could mean that you are actually replacing less expensive grid energy after a certain point, and that may not necessarily be the best way to go."

Creative Technology
The industry's creativity is also evident in the integrated roofing/solar systems that Stellar Energy Solutions offers its customers. The integrated approach has advantages over standard mounting if a significant portion of the roof will be covered in solar panels (3x3 inch solar cells make up a module, four modules make a panel, and panels together make an array).

"A portion of the re-roofing is also subject to the 30 percent tax credit because it qualifies as your racking system," said Whisman. "Also, if you do it as part of a PPA [power purchase agreement], then your roofing and solar warranty are one in the same, which can make handling things a lot easier over time." Whisman says integrated solar roofing is a good option for rooftops that are at least five to 10 years old, since the solar set-up will last for 25 to 40 years and a typical roof lasts around 25 years.

Stretching their creative muscles even further, SPG Solar in Novato, California, has recently installed a "floatovoltaic" solar array at Napa Valley's Far Niente Winery. Almost 1,000 solar panels are secured on pontoons, which float on the winery's vineyard irrigation pond. This, along with 1,300 panels mounted adjacent to the pond, will generate 400 kilowatts at peak output, enough to offset the winery's annual power usage and provide a net-zero energy bill. The installation has saved the winery from having to sacrifice three-quarters of an acre of their Cabernet vines to land-mount the array.

The conversion to solar is part of what Far Niente terms its "conscientious luxury" program: producing luxury wines through sustainable measures that affect the vineyard, winery and day-to-day business practices. Solar is at the center of the program but is complemented by recycling, practicing sustainable and organic farming, powering farming vehicles with biodiesel and using hybrid company vehicles.

"We will always be committed first and foremost to producing great wines; it's what we've been doing for over 25 years," said winery partner, Larry Maguire in announcing the new array. "Yet, we recognize that our environment is facing significant challenges, and as an agriculture-based business we have an obligation to do our part and take sustainable measures where possible."


Resources

Solar Wineries in California List