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Green grapes: Turning sunshine into Napa wine

  • Story Highlights
  • Napa winemakers are increasingly turning to solar power
  • Global warming could disrupt vineyards' delicate environmental balance
  • Wineries have the space, weather conditions to use solar energy
  • Tax rebates, net metering makes solar financially viable
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By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- California's Napa Valley, with its rolling hills, vineyards and prized terrain, produces some of America's finest wines. Here, tradition and craft are everything.

solar panels in vineyard with red mountains in the background

Napa Valley wineries like Nickel & Nickel (pictured above) are switching to solar power

But in Napa, industry and green energy are also finding a perfect fit.

Larry Maguire is partner and President at Far Niente, a luxury producer of estate-bottled Napa wines. For a long time, he had also considered himself interested in environmental issues. Then, two years ago, he was looking forward to welcoming his son home from college for Christmas -- not least because he wanted to show off his new BMW. But his son was nonplussed, and when Maguire asked him why, he was told, "Dad, you're worse than the ignorant. You know better, and you've chosen inaction."

A shocked Maguire resolved to bring sustainable practices to his work. "At some points in your business career, you do things because they're right, not because they make immediate economic sense," he told CNN.

He approached his partners and board about switching Far Niente and its sister wineries, Nickel and Nickel and Dolce, to renewable energy. He was taken aback by their enthusiasm. "Everyone around the table wanted to do it," he said. "We decided that nothing was going to get in the way of going ahead."

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Maguire enlisted solar expert Dan Thompson from Californian company SPG Solar to install nearly 2,000 photovoltaic panels at Nickel and Nickel over a 1.1 acre area. At Far Niente, Thompson suggested 2,300 panels including a cutting-edge installation of 1,000 mounted on the surface of an irrigation pond -- what they've termed "floatovoltaics." All in, the panels can produce 770 kW at peak times.

Maguire and his partners are not alone. At Frog's Leap's organic vineyards in Rutherford, Napa, the winery is powered entirely by solar energy. Their PV panels are complemented by a geothermal system in their hospitality building, which evens out swings in temperature, removing the need for heating and air conditioning. Domaine Carneros, St. Francis, Ridge, Fetzer and other major California wineries have also deployed solar arrays to augment their traditional power sources, Wines and Vines magazine has reported. Photo See how Napa wineries are switching to solar power »

Of course, winemakers have more of a vested interest than most in preventing climate change. In an industry so dependent on a delicate balance of climate and environment, preserving the valuable "terroir" is crucial: change the weather, and you change the wine. "Napa Valley is located in one of the world's few chosen spots for growing magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon," Larry Maguire explained. "Our future and the future of Napa Valley hinges on weather. Global warming is not a good thing for us."

Wineries are perfectly suited to harvesting solar energy alongside their grapes. They have the space and the sunshine, while their peak energy use comes in high summer, when the sun's power is most potent.

In green-thinking California, conditions were also ripe for growing a renewable energy industry, where tax breaks have played a crucial part in encouraging the adoption of solar power. It's seen as one potential remedy for a sunny state where peak summer use can cause plagues of brownouts.

A combination of federal tax credits and California State rebate initiatives can see the net cost of a photovoltaic system drop by as much as 50 percent, meaning winemakers can make back their investment on a 25-year system in just five to ten years.

SPG Solar's Dan Thompson says that these rebates were essential in kick-starting California's solar industry. "Without subsidies, it wouldn't have taken off," he told CNN.

The state's net metering policy, which lets small-scale renewable energy producers sell excess electricity back to the grid, is the other major incentive. It allows winemakers to build up credit with their energy company over the summer while the grapes are growing and their energy consumption is low. Then, during the picking and the crush, when their energy use spikes, the banked credit can, in effect, wipe out wineries' electricity bills altogether. Frog's Leap's marketing manager Terry Joanis told CNN that for their winery, "We have an annual bill of five dollars. It pretty much balances out exactly."

Over at Far Niente, their customers' response to their move towards solar power has been positive. "Some people had the impression of us as a company that's been focused on quality," explained Larry Maguire. "Now it's quality with responsibility." But Far Niente isn't pinning its future on selling itself as green. "Our marketing is not going to be based on the fact that we're practicing renewable policies: it's going to be on producing the world's finest wines," he said.

And at Frog's Leap, Terry Joanis's message is the same. "Our main driver is not to be green; our main driver is to make beautiful wine," she said. "But it positively reinforces how to do business."

The future's looking bright for solar. With more investment and venture capital coming into renewables, Dan Thompson is seeing a surge in technological advancements in solar modules. "We anticipate some real breakthroughs in products on the market within the next six months," he told CNN.

Looking ahead, Thompson sees solar as a technology that will be commonplace. "Fly into any airport and look down at the warehouses. All those are perfect places to put solar panels. It's not about big plants out in the desert; it's about building it all over the place. Like shaking salt on your meal, you need a little bit everywhere. That's how we reduce the dependence and that's how we reduce the stress on our grids."

Only time will tell whether government initiatives will encourage more people across the Sun Belt to opt for solar power.

But meanwhile, back in Napa Valley, the winemakers will continue crafting their product -- now, more than ever, with the help of the sun.

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