NEWS / FEATURES

#7 Story: Green Grants

First Published in the August 2009 Edition

By Mat Elmore

It is no secret that many Oregon wineries and vineyards are on the forefront of sustainability, both in growing their grapes and operating their facilities. Sustainable vineyard certifications such as Salmon Safe and L.I.V.E. are widespread, biodiesel is used in many vineyards’ tractors, and solar panels are increasingly common. Yet the majority of these projects, especially facility-oriented renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements, rely on numerous tax credits and grants for them to become economically feasible for wineries. These tax credits and grants are in no short supply in Oregon, but they often require a lot of work.    

As Left Coast Cellars in Rickreall will tell you, the design, financing and installation of solar panels is never as sexy as the finished product.

“It takes a lot of time and patience, and the paperwork can be overwhelming,” said Luke McCollom, vineyard manager and winemaker at Left Coast, “but it’s all worth it. Our solar panels will save us money in the long run and are an important part of our effort to become more sustainable and give back to the earth.”

Left Coast received the largest USDA Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvement (RESEEI) grant in Oregon in 2008, totaling nearly $350,000 in grants and guaranteed loans. Including installation, the total project, which is one of the Oregon wine industry’s largest, cost $750,000.

The entire system consists of a ground-mounted 21-kilowatt array that powers the winery’s irrigation pump and a roof-mounted 61-kilowatt array housed on top of the main winery building. Together, the systems supply the winery with 90 percent of its energy needs throughout the year.

The RESEEI grant provides funds to agricultural producers and rural small businesses to purchase renewable energy systems and make energy efficiency improvements. The grants are awarded on a competitive basis and can be up to 25 percent of total eligible project costs. Eligible producers and businesses must demonstrate financial need, reside outside of major metropolitan areas and propose projects that are technically feasible and utilize already-proven technology. The grant is offered yearly and requires an extensive application process, including a feasibility study or efficiency assessment for each project.  

The RESEEI grant is awarded by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, but the funds originate from the USDA’s Rural Development Program, whose mission is to increase economic opportunity and improve the quality of life for rural residents across the United States.

Although other vineyards have installed solar panels without the help of the RESEEI grant, McCollom said it was crucial for the completion of their systems. They “already had the wheels moving” on their solar project before they received the USDA grant and loan, but the award confirmed that financing was possible to complete the installation.  

In addition to the RESEEI grant and guaranteed loan, two other credits were instrumental in assisting Left Coast with the enormous cost, much of which had to be supplied up front. They received an Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit, which covered 50 percent of the systems’ cost, and a rebate of $1 to $1.25 per kilowatt provided by the Energy Trust of Oregon.

Total, McCollom estimates that about 80 percent of their solar panels were paid for through tax credits, rebates and grants, with the other 20 percent being paid through a loan from West Coast Bank.

Left Coast Cellars partners with several other businesses in the area that received USDA grants.

McCollom maintains an extensive composting system that uses manure from nearby Rickreall Dairy, which received a $23,000 grant in 2008 to increase the dairy’s efficiency. Left Coast is also participating in an innovative biodiesel pilot project with Willamette Biomass Processors, recipients of $127,000 USDA grant in 2008 to build a biodiesel facility in Rickreall. The project involves growing camelina plants, which are high in oil content and require minimal management, as cover crops in the vineyard and then processing them into biodiesel at the Willamette Biomass Processors facility.

McCollom says he is extremely happy with the solar panels, but he is looking into taking further advantage of the tax credits and grants by installing a small wind turbine and a geothermal energy system on the property, which are both eligible for state and federal benefits. “Geothermal isn’t as complicated as most people think,” said McCollom, “and I’ve been thinking about adding a small wind turbine for a while. Why not?”

Although more than $7 million in USDA RESEEI grants and loans have been awarded in Oregon since 2005, Left Coast Cellars and Bjorn Vineyards near Salem are the only wine industry recipients.

On a typical summer day, warm air rises over the Willamette Valley and cool marine air rushes in from the coast through the Van Duzer corridor. The Van Duzer winds wash over the Eola-Amity Hills almost every afternoon, cooling the grapes each evening to make a perfect environment for growing Pinot Noir.

The same winds that help to produce some of the best Pinot Noir in the world are now also producing clean energy at Bjorn Vineyard. They recently installed a 10-kilowatt wind turbine from Abundant Renewable Energy in Newberg with the help of a USDA RESEEI grant, an Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit and an Energy Trust grant.

Despite having a smaller operation than Left Coast Cellars and a full-time day job, owner Mark Bjornson said that the application process was not a problem.

“For us, it was fairly easy. Stephanie Page, Renewable Energy Specialist at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, wrote the grant and helped us with other governmental regulations.  She did an outstanding job.”

The total project cost, including site preparation, was a little over $90,000, but it was largely paid for by the grants and tax credits. The wind turbine now supplies the majority of the vineyard’s electricity, but Bjornson wants his facilities to be entirely powered by renewable energy in the near future.

“We are committed to sustainability, in our vineyard practices as well as in our energy use,” said Bjornson. His vineyard is certified L.I.V.E. and Salmon Safe, he maintains a permanent cover crop and wide riparian zones beside the creeks that flow through the property, and he encourages biodiversity and natural controls, including a nesting pair of kestrels in the vineyard.

Bjornson first heard about the USDA grant through the Energy Trust of Oregon and encourages other wineries and vineyards interested in installing renewable energy systems to contact them or the Oregon Department of Agriculture for more information.

As more wineries witness the impact that climate change currently has on their businesses and contemplate the potentially devastating effects in the future, it will be no surprise when the USDA receives a greater percentage of grant applications from Oregon’s wineries. Oregon offers some of the most generous renewable energy and energy efficiency benefits in the nation, which is helping the state’s wineries and vineyards maintain their reputation as pioneers of sustainable viticulture and business. 

Mat Elmore is a recent graduate of Colorado College and is currently an intern at the Oregon Environmental Council working on the Carbon Neutral Challenge for Oregon Wineries.

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