A motor whirs every couple minutes.
One of the panels ticks a few inches to the side on one axis. It moves a degree or two up or down on the other.
The giant, glistening solar panels have GPS systems and clocks so they know where the sun is at all times. The motors keep them pointed in its direction.
At sunrise and sunset, the panels stand almost upright. At night they rest, lying down to keep out of the wind.
The show is even better in the winter:
when they wake up, each panel is programmed to go through a series of movements to shake off snow.
Three of these striking solar panel arrays were installed at Brengman Brothers at Crain Hill Winery on S. Center Highway in Leelanau County in June.
The 430-square-foot tracking panels make Crain Hill the first “net-zero” winery in Michigan, meaning the operation produces as much electricity as it uses to make and sell its white and red wine blends, Reislings, Pinot Noirs, cherry wine and other batches from 22 acres of grapes.
SEVEN-YEAR PAY OFF
In fact, the operation produces more electricity than it uses, and sells back the excess to the grid for energy credits that can be used in the winter.
Robert Brengman, one of the brothers and managing director, said solar energy makes sense from both an environmental and business standpoint.
The project is estimated to pay for itself in around seven years. After that, the winery will not have energy costs for years other than system maintenance.
“In this case, we’re both good neighbors to the planet and it’s a good business decision,” Brengman said.
Part of the satisfaction, though, is knowing your energy source is 100 feet away and clean, rather than from a coal-fired power plant 100 or so miles downstate, he said.
The Crain Hill setup cost around $72,000 to install. The winery gets some of that money back in tax credits and also received a USDA grant to pay for 25% of the project.
Without the grant money, the numbers wouldn’t add up so well, Brengman said.
“If you don’t have that incentive or the credits, then it becomes just purely a decision of not having any carbon footprint, which, that’s still a solid decision,” he said.
With the incentives that currently exist, Brengman expects to see other Northern Michigan wineries go “net zero” soon.
SOLAR VINYARD VS. GARDEN
Tom Gallery, owner of Leelanau Solar LLC, which installed the project, said private projects like the one at Crain Hill have an advantage over something like Cherryland Electrical Cooperative’s Community Solar project (also called a solar garden), which got up and running this summer and offers co-op customers a chance to buy into solar energy.
Gallery said the trouble with Cherryland’s project is that it could take as many as 20 years for an investment to pay for itself. That’s around the life of a solar panel, he said.
The garden project, which motorists along US 31 may have noticed, was established earlier this summer in Grawn outside the Cherryland offices. It has the advantage of giving customers a chance to buy shares of solar power without concerns over maintenance or upkeep.
“If you want to have a 20-year payback, that’s how you do it: just have someone else do everything and you pay into it,” Gallery said.
Gallery said another reason the Crain Hill installation is more economically viable is because Consumers Energy pays 11.8 cents per kilowatt hour, or the retail rate, when it buys back excess electricity from Crain Hill. Cherryland buys back electricity from the solar garden at 7.8 cents per kWh, or the wholesale rate, which makes the investment take longer to even out.
Gallery notes that Cherryland opposed Proposal 3 last year, a measure that would have required 25% of energy produced in Michigan to be renewable by 2025. Before that, they opposed the current standard in the state, which is 10% by 2015.
However, Rachel Johnson, grass roots activist for Cherryland Electric, said the Community Solar project shows the cooperative’s commitment to renewable energy.
“We had members who were interested in renewable energy, but couldn’t potentially buy into it themselves,” Johnson said.
“Our central goal here was to create a project that gave our members something they said they were asking for.”
Johnson said another reason the Crain Hill project can pay for itself sooner than the Cherryland project is because they received grant money from the USDA.
If energy rates go up, the Cherryland project could pay for itself sooner, she said.
Cherryland offers a chance for ordinary customers to buy into solar for a few hundred dollars without having to worry about maintenance of a solar system, she said.
“We are going to handle all of the maintenance costs, all of the insurance costs, and if a panel breaks, we’re are going to go out and get someone to fix it,” she said.
SOLAR IS TAKING OVER
Gallery came to renewable energy late in his career. He started out as an automotive engineer in Detroit, where he worked for over 30 years.
He’s owned a home in Northport for decades, but moved north around eight years ago when he started conducting wind assessment and analysis for wind turbines.
In the past eight years, solar technology prices have dropped “just like a rock” and solar has surpassed wind as the best green technology for producing electricity, he said.
While the cost of solar has come down in recent years, solar has another big advantage over wind: its peak production usually coincides with peak periods of electrical use.
On hot days when air conditioners are going, the sun is out and solar panels can make electricity.
At Crain Hill, the panels make two to three times what it takes to air condition the facility, including the large, cathedral-like tasting room.
The excess electricity made in the summer can be banked in Michigan’s electrical grid in the form of credits and used during the winter when there is less sunlight; for example, to run Crain Hill’s geothermal heating system, Gallery said.