WATCH: Finger Lakes wineries slowly reaping benefits of solar switch

Jun 15, 2016

You may not notice it at first, but atop the roof of the wine press building at Lakewood Vineyards is something that marked the beginning of change in the region.

The 47-kilowatt solar energy system has been invaluable to the Watkins Glen, New York winery, according to president and winemaker Chris Stamp. If he has his way, workers will install more panels once the building’s expansion is complete this summer.

Lakewood started harnessing the power of the sun four years ago, a move Stamp said put them “way ahead of the curve” compared to other Finger Lakes wineries.

“At that point, I think there was only one winery with any solar panels,” Stamp said.

That is changing. Solar energy is an investment and more businesses have looked at it as such. It doesn’t come without some challenges, though. 

Credit SHUTTERSTOCK

Solar power requires a long-term commitment before you start seeing savings.

“Does it make a huge difference in the bill? It helps. That money is kind of earmarked toward paying back the panels,” said Stamp.

He estimates Lakewood is facing a payback time between nine and 12 years, despite a grant from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and a 30 percent federal tax credit.

Still, Stamp said, the choice to install more than 140 panels and generate roughly 60 percent of the winery’s electricity using solar power was easy.

Today, more residents and businesses in the Finger Lakes region are finding that it’s well worth it to “go green.” Local advisory firm HuntGreen LLC has taken that into account and is on a mission to help businesses that want to extend the region’s ecological footprint.

The push for solar

HuntGreen provides policy and investment advising on topics like energy, agriculture and the environment. Suzanne Hunt is the face of the company. She has made speeches and participated in discussion forums all over the state, nationally, and on the other side of the globe to spread her message.

“Switching off of dependency on fossil fuels helps us become part of a solution,” said Hunt.

A more than 100-kilowatt solar energy system was installed on multiple buildings at Hunt Country Vineyards in 2015.
Credit SASHA-ANN SIMONS/ WXXI NEWS

Embracing green energy on the grape farm is also near and dear to Hunt’s heart, because she is part of the seven generations of family members who have worked at Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, New York.

According to Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, the region is home to just over 100 of the more than 400 wineries in New York state. And, in the Finger Lakes especially, the shift to solar has become a fast-moving trend.  With more financing options on the table, Hunt said more than 15 percent of wineries in the region have chosen to take on the debt to make a difference.

“We want to maintain the beauty of this area and prevent it from becoming industrialized,” said Hunt.

The price of panels has significantly decreased. Hunt said instead of paying $7 to $9 per watt like before, homeowners can expect a cost of roughly $3 to $3.50 per watt today. And, she added, at large commercial properties, the cost is significantly less.

Those who can afford it can choose to pay for the solar panels and installation in full. More banks have come onboard in recent years to offer several different leases and loans.

There is also the option to obtain third-party financing, where someone else pays for and owns the system, which gets installed on your property.  In that case, you pay only for the power you use and leave the benefits of solar behind when you move.  

From the state downward

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long asked New Yorkers to be mindful of the way in which they consume energy.  The state is committed to reaching 50 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources by 2030, according to the governor’s plan. The ambitious goal is designed to help New York lead the nationwide push to combat climate change and grow the clean energy economy.

Cuomo’s comprehensive Reforming the Energy Vision strategy is ongoing. In February, he announced 900 solar projects underway in local communities across the state.

Sustainable Energy Developments in Rochester has been putting up solar arrays throughout the region, and has recently partnered with a Vermont firm to offer people who don’t want to have the solar panels on their homes a chance to buy solar energy.

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, is certain the trend of solar will quickly expand.

“It’s success-driven. Meaning that one winery will see another winery that’s adopted it and then learn about it and say, ‘Oh yeah, number one, I’m doing good and I can save money over the long haul,’ ” said Trezise.

‘We do what feels right’

Hunt has lived in other parts of the country over the years, but she now lives on the property at Hunt Country Vineyards, where she ordered more than 100 kilowatts of solar panels be installed last summer.

Aside from running into the occasional “unethical installer” who might provide panels of bad quality, Hunt said the challenges are minimal. She wants to see more people educate themselves and join the movement, and hopes to dispel myths, such as the need to delay installation until solar gets more efficient or the system not working in cloudy or foggy climates.

At Lakewood, however, Stamp never bought into the myths and based his decision on ecological beliefs, not financial.

“We don’t do everything to make money, we do what feels right.”