Vineyard takes on solar for future growth

Karen and Anthony Mangus planted their first block of grapes in 2002, though they’d been planning a vineyard for a decade or more before buying the property that’s become the 12.5-acre Historic Hopewell Vineyards in Oxford, Pa.

Vines and arrays are both solar collectors.
All photos by Anthony and Karen Mangus.

Even though their day jobs sometimes still get in the way—Karen, 44, is in marketing, while Anthony, 46, is an airline pilot who flies almost all international routes—they’re definitely hands-on first-generation growers. “We just fell in love with wines 20 years ago,” says Anthony, who serves as vice president of operations. “The more vineyards we toured around the world and in the United States, the more we thought, ‘Let’s take one on. Let’s take it down to its natural process.’”

As of this past spring, the Manguses are tapping into technology too. They’ve installed a new grid-tiered solar photovoltaic system, the latest in solar energy technology that virtually breathes new life into an industry’s ancient art.

The alternative energy system arrives just in time, too, to give their growing operation enough power to survive upcoming PECO electricity rate increases that kick in at the end of the calendar year. They’ve heard their rates will almost double what’s already 16 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Their system, which was projected to generate 36 kilowatts a year, is already generating better than 44 kilowatts due to good (sunny) grape-growing weather this summer and system performance. “We’re getting good grapes and good solar generation,” Anthony says.

Last year, the vineyard’s 10,063 grapevines supplied four Pennsylvania wineries. Historic Hopewell Vineyards is growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes.

“I don’t want to jinx us, but we are currently 338 growing degree days ahead of last year with 5 inches less rainfall,” Anthony says. “If this pattern continues, we’ll see earlier harvests with fruit at much higher sugar and phenolic levels compared to last season.”

In the short term, since the grape growers are generating four to five times the amount of electricity that they’re using, they will be able to sell back energy to the power company. PECO is mandated to buy back clean energy. As the business grows—and they add their own winery—they may reach the point where they’ll be using the entire electrical output. However, the Magnuses figure they’ll still have a surplus to sell back. Once the winery is built, if additional power is needed, the system is also expandable to add more solar panels.

How it works

Much more popular on the West Coast, where there’s more sunshine and consistent temperature, Historic Hopewell’s installation is its area’s largest vineyard solar facility. However, Anthony says grapevines are still grapevines, and grapevines and Solar PV are similar in that they both convert solar energy.

Sauvignon Blanc vines on the hillside at Historic Hopewell Vineyards.

After extensive research and comparing bids, the Manguses contracted with J.K. Mechanical of Willow Street, Pa., to install the pole-mounted system, which is comprised of 132 solar panels on 11 pole-mount modules, or arrays, directly on the north side of the vine rows. The arrays are high enough that they do not interfere with farm equipment or shade the vines.

Each 13-by-15-foot array is composed of 12,210-watt Shuco solar modules, with the DC power converted to AC using power inverters to yield kilowatt-hours of electricity per year that’s tied to the PECO grid and metered, so the excess energy can be sold back to the company. The amount of electricity generated will reduce carbon emissions by more than 20 tons per year and allow the vineyard to sell carbon credits.

The system does not store electricity, so it operates during the day to supply electricity to the house, business and farm buildings, and eventually the winery. When the panels are not producing electricity in the evenings, the inverters automatically switch the farm back to PECO-supplied electric.

Financing the project

State and federal incentives for alternative energy sources motivated the Magnuses to go forward. State and federal credits combine to cover 66 percent of the cost of the solar energy project, which they won’t reveal on the record. They figure the project will pay for itself in about four years.

While the cash payouts for commercial investors through the PA Sunshine Grant have been depleted, tax credits through federal legislation signed by President Barack Obama for renewable energy are available as long as construction begins by the end of 2010. There are numerous other incentives available for financing, tax reasons, etc. To learn more, visit www.dsireusa.org.

Backs of the solar arrays looking southwest.

The incentives were hard to ignore, as was the advice and guidance of J.K. Mechanical, Inc., which has tripled its business this year and hired 12 additional employees. “Their technical experience combined with extensive, real-time knowledge of government incentives made the decision to go solar an easy one,” Anthony says.

The Magnuses leveraged a large portion of their entire 2010 budget into the project, but haven’t looked back.

“It’s the best feel-good money we ever spent,” Anthony says. “It actually felt good writing out that check. We couldn’t be happier.”

Environmentally sound

Anthony and Karen say they’ve always been green conscious, and in a perfect world, they could have regular rainfall and abundant sunshine, and they could run a completely organic operation. However, they realize they can’t.

“So, we minimize the amount of chemicals on the grapes and in the vines,” Anthony says. “We spray as inert as we can and minimize the herbicides.”

Solar arrays on the north end of the Sauvignon Blanc vineyard.

The vineyard already uses electric vineyard motorcars and low-output sprayers, as well as two small, 125-watt solar panels for bird protection and weather reporting. There’s one tractor, which runs on diesel. The vineyard carts from GEM Cars Ltd. (Global Electric Motorcars), a Chrysler company, which Anthony calls “glorified golf carts.”

“It all goes hand-in-hand,” he says.

Of interest, the main vineyard tractor is an Italian-made Antonio Carraro specialized articulating vineyard tractor. Two smaller tractors help with other tasks. All are diesel-powered. “We hope to produce our own biodiesel soon,” Anthony says.

The GEMs are road-certified and have a 30-mile range on one charge. Almost every state allows their use on 35 mph or less roads except Pennsylvania. “We want Pennsylvania to get out of the dark ages soon,” Anthony says.

With a drier summer, grapes are ahead of schedule. Last year was too wet, but the Magnuses still maintained a high quality fruit with increased spraying and vine canopy management. Quality fruit means they’re spraying an estimated 40 percent less. “It’s been perfect,” Anthony says, “but we still need the occasional rain.”

With an early, ripe crop, Historic Hopewell Vineyards can get its fruit off to the wineries.

“At this point, we can pray and hope,” Anthony says. “It’s still farming, and so no matter how high-tech the industry becomes, we’re still dependent on the whims of nature.”

However, in Pennsylvania, he says, people think they can’t have, or find, a great winery. “We have 126 of them,” Anthony says. “We put out an excellent product, and it goes hand-in-hand with solar generation. Even on a cloudy day, we’re putting out more energy than we’re using.”

If you would have asked 20 years ago if he would have been growing grapes and selling renewable energy back to his power supplier, though, he would have laughed. “It’s amazing how things change,” he says. “We’re actually regressing in age the older we get.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.