All Power Full: Former Silicon Valley engineer Chuck McMinn’s winery hands PG&E its hat, thank you very much.
By Brett Ascarelli
On a recent morning north of St. Helena, Chuck McMinn, a former Silicon Valley engineer turned winery owner, is contemplating the technology behind his vino venture, Vineyard 29. Despite his new occupation, McMinn, whose guileless eyes and ambling frame recall the claymation hero Wallace, is still every bit the techie. He designed his office so that, according to how much sun beats through the windows, the blinds open or close themselves automatically. At this moment, they stand open, giving the giant picture windows rows of pastoral grapevines to frame. This is the ultramodern winery that got some ultraprestigious attention last year when Food & Wine magazine named its winemaker, Philippe Melka (who also consults for other wineries), Winemaker of the Year.
Producing roughly 10,000 cases of boutique wine per year, primarily Cabernet (4,000 cases under its own Parker-approved label), the immaculate winery has also gotten considerable ink in technical journals, such as Vineyard and Winery Management and Distributed Energy: the Journal for Onsite Power Solutions, about its innovations using green power.
The winery uses an environmentally friendly generator system, emitting seven times fewer nitrous oxides and similar pollutants than energy produced by PG&E and using energy 80 percent more efficiently. It also produces only one-third of the greenhouse gases that PG&E does.
Wineries are required by code to have generators for fire protection. But instead of running an ordinary diesel-powered generator, Vineyard 29’s “cogenenerator” system produces not only energy, but also usable heat–and from that, amazingly, usable cold.
Housed in a small chamber marked with block letters “Turbine Room,” two Capstone microturbines hum moderately, powered by the burning of pressurized natural gas. Although nondiesel power-generation technology has been employed for years at dairies, using methanol from cow waste as an energy source, Vineyard 29 is the first winery to make its own cogenerator power from microturbines.
The winery is also the first company in the United States to use nifty Japanese technology that chills the generator’s waste heat without using corrosive materials. This Nishiyodo chiller uses silica gel, the compound in the little packets accompanying new shoes or pill bottles, to remarkably cool the waste heat from the microturbines. The resulting cold glycol then travels throughout the winery through a closed loop and is what constantly maintains the cave temperatures at the ideal 2 to 4 degrees below-ground temperature.
What little waste heat that the winery can’t harness leaves through a green cooling tower. Cooling towers typically release pesticides, herbicides and anti-scaling chemicals into the atmosphere, compounds which are used to treat the water. But at Vineyard 29, the water supply is treated with a nonchemical electric pulse. “What’s blowing out the stack is just as good as plain well water,” says McMinn, looking up at the sky.
When Ray Cole, president of Axiom Engineers in Monterey, suggested McMinn consider the unconventional microturbine generator, it made sense as a reliable, cheap and environmentally responsible source of power that could hold its own during PG&E’s notorious brownouts. Although Vineyard 29’s generator can supplement itself with power from the grid, the winery currently makes a whopping 91 percent of its own energy, opting to stay minimally attached to the grid for redundancy purposes.
McMinn says, “The technology is not a conventional one in wineries; it hadn’t been known or commonly used before. I’d dealt with technology before, trying to sell people technologies to make things easier for them. So it was easier for me to make the leap of faith.”
This leap of faith has served him well so far, saving about one-half of monthly energy costs. The winery’s combined chilling, heating and power (CCHP) system costs about one-third less than the equivalent power from PG&E, and it also saves money because it harnesses waste heat for purposes it would normally need to fund.
The only problem with running the CCHP system is that McMinn can’t sell back the extra power he generates to PG&E. At least not yet. Last August, the federal Energy Bill’s passage mandated that cogenerated power must be able to be resold to utility companies, much like renewable resource power has been for years. However, the rules and regulations for actually implementing this legislation remain unwritten, and utility companies are dragging their feet. Why?
Ray Cole, president of Axiom Engineers, who suggested that McMinn consider cogeneration in the first place, says, “You’ve got a lot of people in the utility that are still entrenched in the old model, where the utility generated all the power, marketed it and sold it. But the modern model for utility systems is that the grid is a connector, and the utility exists to transport power, not necessarily to market it or produce it. That’s the current goal of state and federal regulatory regimes or agencies.” By contrast, he says, “the utility companies long for the day when there was one utility and they set all the rules and life was very simple.”
On the other hand, through the California Public Utilities Commission’s Self-Generation Incentive Program, PG&E pitched in to pay $1,000 for each kilowatt of the generator’s capacity, which came to $120,000 of the generator’s total cost of $608,763. Because natural gas prices spiked last year along with oil prices, however, McMinn’s investment will take longer to pay for itself than he had initially anticipated, but he estimates it will take about six years from when he first switched on the generator in 2003.
Although cogeneration has been around for decades, CCHP is still a rarity in the wine world. To make it cost-effective, wineries must be able to demonstrate a substantial need for reusing waste heat. But the idea is at least taking root. McMinn estimates that representatives of about a hundred wineries have come through Vineyard 29 to look at the turbines. “In this valley, we’re all farmers. We try to let the land express itself in the wine.” McMinn pauses, “It takes seven years from the first planting to the first sale. We have a long-term investment in the land. So you’re doing everything you can to protect the land and your livelihood–the vines–which seems like the right thing to do.”
Vineyard 29 is located at 2929 Hwy. 29, St. Helena. 707.963.9292.