Green for green 

Powering the grapevine at Ten Spoon

Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery’s Andy Sponseller is tired of hearing people talk about sustainability and green living without doing much about either. Especially given that he and Connie Poten, the organic vineyard’s other owner, will be in debt for the next 10 years for the sake of the green cause.

“Talking about sustainability is cool and plenty of people do it…but we have to put our money where our mouths are,” Sponseller says. That’s why the former Missoula city councilman and local activist applied for a loan under Montana’s Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program. Ten Spoon is the first Montana business to utilize the Department of Environmental Quality program, which granted them a $40,000 loan they used to purchase two large solar arrays. Sponseller says the loan and the panels just make good business sense.

According to Albuquerque-based Zomeworks, which built the panels, the two arrays follow the movement of the sun, employing a passive energy system with two tubes of liquid that heat up in the sun, causing the liquid to shift and the panels to move accordingly.

“We think it will help us control expenses,” Sponseller says. “Imagine, if you will, going down to the power company and you feel a little flush, you have some extra money, and you feel like buying $20,000 worth of power. You can’t just do that. But that’s $20,000 of power for the next 30 years.”

The $40,000 loan comes with a five percent interest rate and, Sponseller says, a monthly payment of $425. By Sponseller’s estimation, it will take Ten Spoon 15 years to recoup the expenditure.

NorthWestern Energy, which still provides a percentage of power to Ten Spoon, credits 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour generated by the panels. But that doesn’t mean Ten Spoon will make any money off the panels.

When the buildings are using power generated solely by the solar panels, NorthWestern’s meters will run in reverse, Sponseller says. And when the meters hit zero, Ten Spoon effectively owes nothing to NorthWestern. But excess energy on days when the winery consume no more electricity than what’s produced by the panels, is fed back into the power grid.

“That’s free power for NorthWestern,” Sponseller says. “But that’s not a problem with NorthWestern, it’s a problem with energy policy everywhere.”

Bill Kennedy, a Yellowstone County Commissioner who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for a 2008 run against Rep. Denny Rehberg, was in Missoula Monday and took time to visit Ten Spoon’s new solar arrays.

“I was amazed by them,” he says. “I’d really like to explore the possibilities of having a pilot program that would help counties put these panels on buildings and get us all on a path toward better energy choices.”

Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to Sponseller and Poten congratulating them for putting the Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program to use. Tester had supported the program as a state senator, and asked the partners to “enjoy a glass of the Farm Dog Red for me.”

Sponseller says beyond political motivation (he’s no fan of U.S. energy policy or the country’s reliance on foreign oil) there were several reasons Ten Spoon wanted to go with the panels.

For instance, “If the power were to go out in Missoula, we’d still be generating our own power during the day.

“Also, I’ve never heard of a squirrel shorting out a solar panel,” he says

Sponseller says each array will generate about 4,000 kilowatt-hours of power a year. One array, connected directly to Sponseller and Poten’s home, will provide all the electrical power for the house. Sponseller estimates that the second array, connected to the winery, will provide about one-third of the power needed for Ten Spoon to produce its various wines.

So Ten Spoon isn’t completely off the grid, but Sponseller says that shouldn’t matter. What really matters in his estimation is creating a system in which the grid––currently sustained mostly by coal-burning power plants––is buffered by renewable energy sources like solar power.

Having so much power generated greenly on site, while being part of an environmental movement, will also serve to give Sponseller and Poten peace of mind as they ease into retirement, he says.

“Most retired people are on some sort of a fixed income, which leads to all sorts of issues,” he says. “Connie and I are hoping to retire in the next 10 or 15 years, and knowing the power situation is under control is definitely a plus.”

Sponseller says that after a year of watching the panels in action, Ten Spoon will have a better grasp of what its “baseline” is, and how many more panels would be required for complete self-sufficiency.

“Critics might say we’re still importing grapes from Oregon and California and that that still wastes fossil fuels, but we are moving the majority of our operation to the region,” he says. “And at least we’re doing something.”
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