Solar light and shade

Thursday, 1. October 2015 - 11:45

J.Lohr, solar panels in the vineyard

Solar panels have powered wineries for more than a decade; now a Bordeaux vintner hopes they will also protect his vines.

Domaine de Nidolères, located in one of the sunniest regions in France, Roussillon, is adopting a solar panel system it hopes will create climactic conditions that will allow it to control both the ripeness of grapes as well as their yields.

“The climate is warming and it is warming everywhere in the world,” Domaine de Nidolères’s owner and winemaker Pierre Escudié said, to explain why he planned to place solar panels, not on his winery’s roof, but in the vineyard itself. He sees this as a way of protecting the vines from burning.

Sun and shade

Speaking through an interpreter, Escudié explained how, with funding from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the Agricultural Chamber of the Pyrénées-Orientales, he plans to plant 7.5 ha of vines in two plots. Some 5 ha will have panels; 2.5 ha will act as a control and will not have solar panels.

Atop wooden posts, the panels’ degrees of inclination will be individually controlled via a Sun’R (a French alternative energy company) computer based in Lyon.  During sunny periods, shade from the panels will shield the leaves and clusters from scorching, and prevent berry desiccation and the development of excessive sugar levels.

The effect, he hopes, will be a more measured ripening process that results in better balanced wines with moderate alcohol levels, more aromatic expression and “better overall quality”, he said, estimating that the panels, planted to cover every two rows, will increase the shade by 30%.

The panels will also act as wind deflectors and, Escudié hopes, will protect the clusters from rain, thereby reducing the risk of mould, oidium and botrytis.

The land is laying fallow at the moment, said Eric Aracil, export manager for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR), and the vines will be planted in the spring.

Results from the experiment, estimated to cost between €2m ($2.2m) to €3m, are expected “to be notable and hopefully stable by the fourth or fifth year; Pierre has a contract with Sun’R for a minimum of 20 years!

“This gives them time to assess the long-term benefits for the vines,” Aracil said.

The deal Escudié reached with Sun’R is unique. During the growing season he uses all the electricity the panels produce, but in the winter, Sun’R gets the electricity produced by the panels to sell as they wish.

Roussillon, which considers itself “an innovative, forward-looking wine region”, Aracil said, was the natural place for such an experiment.

In other regions

In hidebound Bordeaux, there are relatively few producers who have turned to solar for their energy needs. One of them is Château de Camarsac, presided over by Thierry Lurton. The Château turned to solar energy in 2011 as part of it celebration of its 700th anniversary. The Château was built in 1312.

“It was a really big project,” Lurton said in an e-mail. “But we had been studying the possibility for some years before,” he said. The French government offered incentives for solar power in 2010 and 2011, “so we took the opportunity. Today, we sell all the energy (we produce) and we buy the energy we need,” he added.  The solar installation cost approximately €2.3m and Lurton expects that the project will pay for itself after about 8 to 10 years of production.

When it comes to solar power, California is the anti-Bordeaux.

The Wine Institute, an advocacy group for California wineries, lists more than 80 wineries that use solar power as part of their sustainable growing practices. They range from smaller, select producers like Merry Edwards winery in Sonoma, to Napa’s Far Niente Winery, which built a solar array over one of its irrigation ponds.

At J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in Paso Robles, about a three-hour drive south of San Francisco, the move to solar “is definitely paying off”, said Steve Lohr, whose father started making wines in the California Central Coast region more than 40 years ago.

“By this November, our tracking array will have paid for itself, seven years after it started providing electricity for our Paso Robles winery and tasting room,” he said in an e-mail.  “We should then have free electricity for the remaining life of the system, approximately 20 years.”

J. Lohr was one of the first to jump on the solar panel option back in 2008, when the US federal government was offering a 30% tax credit and the state of California and its local utility were also offering incentives. Lohr estimated that before the credit and the incentives, the cost to install the three-acre (1.2 ha) solar array was about $5.2m.

The credit and incentives “were factors in the decision to go ahead with solar”, he said. “However, the desire to install the system came out of one of my civil engineering classes at Stanford back in the 1980’s, when the promise of photovoltaics was brighter than its economics.”

With or without the credits, Lohr said he would have made the same decision to go solar, it just might have taken longer to get the return and the capital might have been invested elsewhere.

The region has about 320 days of sunshine per year, so the panels generate more than enough energy to keep the barrel rooms, fermentation tanks and people cool. Meanwhile, the excess energy they produce “allows our meter to spin backwards, but we do not get paid for the excess energy”, Lohr said. “We have been told by our local utility that when our true-up billing cycle ends in November, we will begin to get paid for the excess energy that we produce.”

But the solar array is more than just a revenue stream. It is also a marketing tool.

“The presence of the array has been a cornerstone of our sustainability program, and our focus on sustainability has helped our sales with consumers and gatekeepers who share our concerns for the environment and our communities,” Lohr said. It serves as a badge attesting to the family-owned winery’s commitment to clean, green, renewable, energy that customers can see for miles and be reassured.

Whether Domaine de Nidolères will find their customers looking at the panels in its vineyard as a marketing gimmick or a sincere effort to take care of the environment, improve their wines’ quality and lower costs, only time will tell.        

Leslie Gevirtz