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Sun powers Paso winery – J. Lohr cuts carbon emissions by 30,000 tons

By   /   Friday, March 6th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Sun powers Paso winery – J. Lohr cuts carbon emissions by 30,000 tons

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Back in the 1980s, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines was among the first crop of firms to realize that great red wines could grow in Paso Robles. Now the company is leading the way in harvesting the area’s solar energy.

Late last month, J. Lohr unveiled a three-acre solar installation that will track the sun across the sky to offset 75 percent of the winery’s energy usage in Paso Robles. The 756-kilowatt setup consists of about 4,300 solar modules and is estimated to cut the winery’s carbon emissions by nearly 30,000 tons over 25 years – the practical equivalent of planting about 500 trees.

Solar power “makes a lot of sense for the wine industry because of its longer term outlook,” said Steve Lohr, vice president of planning and development for J. Lohr. “When you plant a vine, you’re planting it for the next 25 years. It just so happens that coincides with the life of one of these solar-tracking facilities. We all have that mindset of making sure the next generation is set up as well as we are.”

J. Lohr has about 2,000 acres of vineyards near Paso Robles in addition to its winemaking facilities. It says its tracking array is the biggest at a winery in North America.

But J. Lohr is not the only tri-county agribusiness that’s gone solar. Last October, Santa Paula-based lemon and avocado grower Limoneira unveiled a 5.5-acre, nearly one-megawatt solar installation. Tri-county agribusinesses have now matched Google, which grabbed international headlines in 2007 when it brought online a 1.6-megawatt solar installation on its main campus.

Like Limoneira, J. Lohr said that a federal tax break and an incentive from its utility provider helped make a good eco decision a good economic decision.

“When we produce more electricity than we use, that actually spins our meter backward, just like a residential application. We don’t ever actually make money, but we do provide power to go back on the grid so others can use it,” Lohr said. “That’s certainly an issue this time of year, where there’s still quite a bit of sun some days but we don’t have as much energy use” cooling barrels at the winery, he said.

J. Lohr’s solar move marks its latest step toward better sustainably, Lohr said. The company already uses compost made of leftover grape skin, seeds and stems to reduce its use of nitrogen fertilizer, a petroleum-derived product.

“It’s much healthier for the vineyards and the environment,” Lohr said. “If we can use less petroleum to make fertilizers, we can use less oil. If we can use less petroleum or natural gas to make energy, we can use less oil. We’re just lowering our carbon footprint all around.”

In addition to being environmentally friendlier, Lohr said the company’s investments in sustainability have started to pay off with customers.

“Restaurants, retailers, they’re all wondering what your vineyards are: Are you sustainable? Are you organic?” Lohr said. “And they’re creating lists of who’s sustainable. It’s almost like a preferred list.”

Lohr said he’s heard interest from other wineries that want to know how to go about going solar. His company plans a special tour for them in April, and Lohr said he’s committed to helping other wineries get aboard.

The wine business, Lohr said, is the perfect place for long-term investments such as solar power because it’s an industry with many multi-generational, family-owned businesses. Lohr himself helped his father, Jerry, plant the company’s first vineyards when he was 10 years old. He said he “absolutely” plans to pass the business on to a third generation.

“We’re family-owned in the industry, so we don’t have as much pressure to make quarterly, or even annual, profit,” Lohr said. “We know that some years we might not make a profit, but that’s okay because we have a generational time horizon that we’re planning for.”

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