Powers Winery, vineyard embraces the sun

For the better part of a half-century, Bill Powers has been harnessing the sun to ripen orchard fruit and grapevines. Now, the founder of Powers Winery and Badger Mountain Vineyard is using solar to run his business.

On Thursday, the winery in the Rancho Reata area of Kennewick finished installing a 2,200-square-foot solar array on its barrel room. It produces about 33 kilowatt hours and should supply 18 percent of the winery's operational needs. The array was installed by Hire Electric in The Dalles, Ore.

Mickey Dunne, national sales manager and co-owner with Powers and his son, Greg, said the solar array is believed to be the largest on any winery in Washington -- and one of the largest private solar projects in Eastern Washington.

Dunne said the total package, including installation, cost nearly $200,000, though tax credits and a renewable energy grant from the federal government helped reduce the total bill significantly.

"This pays for itself in just under four years," Dunne said.

This is not the winery's first foray into solar energy. Three years ago, it installed a smaller array on its administrative building, which includes its tasting room.

"That's supplied about 25 percent of the power we use for the administrative building," Dunne said. "This is a much bigger array but, of course, a much bigger power demand."

Producing wine is more about crushing grapes, fermenting juice and bottling the finished product. Systems to cool the juice and wine during and after fermentation take a lot of energy, as do pumps and bottling lines.

"There are a lot of different phases of the operation that use quite a bit of power," Dunne said.

On Tuesday, the winery will celebrate the completed project with a small reception. Attending will be Chris Cassidy, national business renewable energy adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., as well as Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, and Kent Waliser, chairman of the wine commission.

Going green is nothing new for Powers. He began organically farming his 70-acre vineyard on Badger Mountain about 23 years ago, and it became the state's first certified organic vineyard in 1990. He was in the orchard business for a quarter-century before that and grew concerned about the amount of chemicals he applied and how it might affect his health. At the time, his son, Greg, was just getting out of high school and was helping with the farming.

"I just couldn't send those kids out to put on some of the things we were using," he said.

He got the idea to farm his vineyard organically from a California winery, then followed up by producing organic wine under the Badger Mountain Vineyard label (the Powers Winery label is not certified organic).

Powers also makes his own biodiesel fuel. Every week or so, the winery retrieves used cooking oil from a half-dozen Tri-City restaurants, then processes it 80 gallons at a time to turn it into biodiesel that will run the farm's tractors. The cost per gallon is $1.25 vs. $3.90 per gallon for traditional diesel.

And there's a bonus when a tractor is operating in the vineyard, Powers said: "It smells really good, like you're cooking French fries."

The winery also has a 500-gallon compost tea brewer, which it uses to keep its vines healthy.

Dunne isn't certain what the winery will do next to make its operation leaner and greener, but it probably won't be windmills.

"We explored wind energy a few years back," he said. "On a private basis, the requirements are a little bit beyond what we want to tackle."