Thinking Tech

'Floatovoltaics' rule when you run out of land

Posting in Energy

If there's reasonably calm water nearby, mount your solar panels on pontoons and float them. Far Niente Winery in Oakville, Calif., more than just floated the idea.

Here's a good way to celebrate the 40th annual Earth Day: go out and buy a bottle of Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon. If you like it, become a regular customer.

By doing so, you'll be rewarding a company that generates all of its electricity from solar panels, half of them mounted on water-born pontoons (see SmartPlanet video below). While being a good citizen was part of  Far Niente's motivation, the idea to create a "Floatovoltaic system" was born of economic necesssity.

Had Far Niente mounted the its .7 acre of solar panels on land, it could have foregone upward of $150,000 in annual revenue generated by the grapes grown on very  expensive Napa Valley real estate, according to a 2008 Far Niente press release. Total Far Niente land under cultivation is 100 acres.

"The vineyard land is so valuable, the last thing you would want to do here in the greatest Cabernet growing region in North America is pull out those vines to generate solar power," Far Niente president and CEO Larry Maguire says in the video below.

At the same time, the steep up-front investment for the system demonstrated a commitment to solar, according to Far Niente's press release.

“We made the move to solar, not because it made business or financial sense, but because my partners and I felt it was the right thing to do from a social perspective,” Maguire said. “We have made a $7 million dollar up-front investment in the solar systems at Far Niente and our sister winery, Nickel & Nickel. It will take about 12 years for the rebates and tax credits, combined with the savings from producing our own energy, for the costs to be offset.”

The 1,000 water-born panels are complemented by another 1,300 on land next to the pond. Together, they produce a peak of 400 kilowatts. Presumably, that land was not under cultivation.

The system also yields a net zero electric bill from Pacific Gas & Electric. Nickel & NIckel's system nearby includes 1,904 land born panels and produces 330 kilowatts.

"Floatovoltaic" systems are the specialty of Thompson Technology Industries (TTI) in nearby Novata, Calif. and Far Niente's installation was the first, according to a TTI press release. Problems unique to floatovoltaics are easily overcome by using marine grade wiring and connectors. Far Niente project manager Greg Allen discusses the issues in the video.

"We were very concerned about not having a ground fault from this system. It turns out people have been using electricity in close proximity to water for a long time. We simply use marine quality conductors to safely carry the electricity from the point of generation in water to the inverter on land."

As for buying a bottle of Far Niente, it will set you back a bit. I found a 2008 Chardonnay for $55.95 at Bountyhunterwine.com.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure