Eat, Drink, Renewable?

Like any good foodophile, I read my labels. I like seeing those black and white USDA organic circles on packaging. They make me feel good. So wouldn’t it be great to see a tiny windmill or smiling sun on your bag of chips? Certified renewable? Well if recent trends hold, this idea may not be far off. On the East End of Long Island, farms and wineries have been pioneering the use of upgraded turbines and solar technologies to help meet their energy demands.

Since 2010, five wineries, Shinn Estate, Osprey’s Dominion, McCall Wines, 67 Steps and Pindar have erected wind turbines ranging in size from 10 to 100 kilowatts. Others, including Paumanok Vineyards and Peconic Bay Winery have installed solar panels. Meanwhile, Duck Walk and Pindar use geothermal energy for cooling their fermentation tanks. In most instances, the renewables provide a significant percentage of energy needed, and in some, the installations are big enough to provide the wineries with all the energy they need.

In the last year alone, a single road in East Hampton, Long Lane, has become home to two turbines, one at a tree farm and the other at a chicken farm. Farms have embraced smaller-scale renewable projects as well. Art Ludlow of Mecox Bay Dairy installed a solar display on his own, while Garden of Eve Farm in Riverhead placed a solar awning at their market. Alternative energy can have very specific uses as well. Thanks to a donation by GreenLogic Energy, a Southampton-based company that designs and installs renewable energy solutions, Quail Hill Farm now uses solar energy to provide an electric current to its deer fencing.

Like peanut butter and jelly, or, better yet, like wine and cheese, farms and renewables go together. Many have barns, warehouses, garages and other large unobstructed swaths of what installers call “roof real estate” for solar panels. The vast expanse of land lends itself to turbines, and geothermal wells. For the land-rich, ground-mounted solar arrays are also an option. For example, SUNation, a full-service solar installation provider, is currently working with several sod farms to install “ground mounts.”

There’s a palpable buzz regarding alternative energy. Many organizations, from the Long Island Farm Bureau to Suffolk County Community College, offer informational sessions or training in renewable energy. Newspapers speculate over whether Alec Baldwin will receive approval for his East Hampton wind turbine. Will it cast a shadow over Jerry Seinfeld’s solar installation? And with at least six companies actively installing these systems, what was clearly a commercial trend is threatening to become downright fashionable.

Can the “tipping point” for mainstream acceptance of renewables be far away?

When Marc Cléjan, cofounder of GreenLogic Energy, started his business in 2005, there was no “green energy” being deployed on the East End. By 2010, GreenLogic was ranked by Inc. Magazine in its annual list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. So he takes a rather philosophical view of the situation. Changing perceptions, he says, is part of his job description.

“Turbines represent mankind harnessing the wind. Looking at a turbine is like looking at a beautiful sailboat in a way. You could argue that the mast on a sailboat is ugly, but who ever said that? This is a long process. We’re transforming the world one house, one farm, one vineyard at a time.”

David Page, of Shinn Estate Vineyards, knows about such transformation. As an early adopter of wind energy on eastern Long Island, he was one of the first to go through the approval process. Via e-mail he explains: “The bureaucratic process of obtaining a variance to install a wind turbine was disheartening. Noise, birds, safety and aesthetics were all used as excuses in an attempt to block the construction.”

I decided to visit one of the new turbines so I could form my own opinion on these matters. I drove to Long Lane in East Hampton to visit Iacono chicken farms. They have one of the newest turbines, installed by Windsine Energy in January 2012.

I stopped by unannounced and found Anthony Iacono and his mother, Edith, cleaning up the store. They were closed but nice enough to sit down and speak with me about their turbine. According to Anthony, the turbine is mostly silent. “When it’s windy,” he said, “everything’s blowing around anyway. The wind in the trees is louder than the turbine.” Iacono didn’t appear to have any strong philosophical predilection to “go green.” Instead, he explained it was mostly an economic decision.

“The turbine cost $90,000. About 30 percent of that was covered by a LIPA rebate and another 30 percent by the U.S. Treasury. And right now, I’ve put in for a USDA grant that would cover an additional $20,000 of the cost. If that goes through, I’ll recoup my investment in three years and have free energy for as long as the turbine lasts.”

In contrast to some of the earlier adopters of renewable technology, Iacono didn’t have difficulty gaining approval for his turbine. “My neighbor Steve Mahoney [Mahoney’s tree farm was the first commercial enterprise in East Hampton to get a permit for a wind turbine] had to jump a few hurdles to get approval. He blazed the trail for me…. I learned that, as long as you have enough land, there’s no problem. They just wanted to make sure that if the thing falls, it falls on my property.”

Iacono continued, “With all the rebates, I figured the time to do it was now. Who knows what will happen after the Presidential election?”

Before I left Iacono, I walked over to the base of the turbine and looked up. Indeed, there was something beautiful about it. It was sleek and gray. I was surprised at how often it moved to catch the wind precisely. Turbines are built with sensors that allow them to point in the direction of the wind to maximize efficiency. And the sound…a barely audible wobble. A gentle warble. A sleepy wooze.

It was rather mesmerizing.

This mixture of financial incentive and environmental conscientiousness was the main theme I found in speaking with the farmers and wineries that are using alternative energy. Cléjan explains, “The economic thing is really the bedrock. Green has to be both kinds of green today. If it doesn’t make economic sense, it’s a nonstarter. Fortunately, renewables with the current incentives are way cheaper than traditional energy.”

Simply put, the grants and rebates make it possible for people to follow their conscience. They’re empowering people to move in a socially responsible, environmentally friendly direction, while saving money and decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels. Everyone benefits. Sounds like smart legislation.

“It’s an appreciating investment, and people are starting to find out,” says Keri Minnick, director of operations at Mattituck-based Eastern Energy Systems. EES has installed solar systems at Borghese Vineyard and Wild by Nature in Long Beach, a wind turbine at Osprey’s Dominion, another wind turbine in progress at Pugliese, and the first 100 kilowatt wind installation on Long Island at Half Hollow Nurseries in Laurel. Because of the increased visibility of renewable projects, Minnick sees other opportunities along the food chain; caterers, for example, often have large energy-hungry coolers and kitchens under ample roof space. The Talmage Agway in Riverhead added solar panels to one of its barns. So did the East Hampton Food Pantry. Still, Minnick agrees that farmers are in the sweet spot for renewable energy use.

“Farmers,” she notes, “don’t pay tax on their system,” like a car dealership would have to. They get a better return on buying a solar system than a new piece of machinery, which depreciates and doesn’t include a 30 percent tax rebate.

In fact, LIPA could be setting the stage for much more growth on farms. In late June, their board of trustees voted to allow for the purchase of up to 50 megawatts of solar generation located on its customers’ premises through June of 2014. Such “Feed-in Tariff” programs have been used throughout Europe to accelerate investment in renewable energy. “It’s finally allowing for solar farms to be created on Long Island,” says Minnick of EES. To take advantage of this new program, her firm has already put in multiple applications for systems it will design, build and even own that will sell generated energy to LIPA.

“Land use is going to shift on farms,” says Scott Maskin, president of SUNation, which has offices in Southampton and Oakdale. “Farm land is already flat and shovel-ready for projects.” With the introduction of feed-in tariff, he notes, farmers and other landowners are going to start comparing the yield of energy versus crops per acre of land. “Certainly, Albany and Washington are hugely behind,” Maskin adds, “and moving this forward as fast as they can with government support.”

All advocates note that the return on the investment can be impressive. Chris Ghosio, vice president at Medford-based Danisi Energy, which has been installing geothermal heating and cooling on Long Island since the 1960s, said such on-farm investments are particularly smart when combined with more common-sense steps like lowering thermostats, sealing leaky doors and windows and adding insulation. Yes, there is upfront cost, but it’s partly tax-deductible, and many banks and government agencies offer low-interest financing for such investments.

For example, last year Garden of Eve Farm in Riverhead installed a new porch at their market. But because of some of the rebates being offered, they were able to use P2P Energy Solutions, a full-service energy management company, to make the overhang solar. Garden of Eve took advantage of “bonus depreciation,” which enabled the farm to take the entire write-off in its first year of ownership. The system provides over 13,300 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, saving the farm roughly $2,200 annually.

“Garden of Eve will see a return on their investment in about five years,” their installer from P2P Energy notes, “resulting in decades of free, clean energy and an awning for their customers that pays for itself.” Other farms note similar periods of time before they recoup their initial investments.

If all this talk about investment returns, tariffs and rebates is getting icky, I understand. But you simply can’t talk about energy without talking about money. In a way, I hoped the switch to renewables was part of some altruistic zeitgeist sweeping over the East End. Admittedly, the fact that it has been spurred on largely by economic incentives tarnished it somewhat for me.

But then I read on Bloomberg that Big Oil receives over $2 billion in tax breaks annually while pulling in about $150 billion in profit. I thought about Exxon fighting tooth and nail (still!) about the cleanup costs for the Valdez spill, and I thought about all those damned advertisements Big Oil runs, telling everyone how “clean” they are. Putting things into that perspective, I figured perhaps farmers should get more rebates!

Apart from the upfront incentive of having a lower energy bill, there’s the softer incentive of having a nice marketing tool in their arsenal. Click around the Web sites of Garden of Eve and other renewable adopters and you’ll see pictures of their new turbines and solar installations.

Cléjan, who with GreenLogic has worked on both the largest solar ground mount in New York State (Peconic Bay Winery) and the largest wind turbine (Pindar Vineyards), puts it this way. “Their customers are counting on them to be leaders in the food and beverage markets that they serve. Most of these businesses are pioneers and they care about the environment. What better way to show your commitment than to say, ‘I’m using renewable energy to power my farm or vineyard.’” In the case of Shinn Vineyards, Page notes that he and his wife are founding members of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers, and use renewables as a holistic approach to lessen their environmental footprint and remain economically viable. Maskin of SUNation compared companies publicizing their use of renewables to food brands that put the word “organic” on food labels.

It’s clear this impulse is spreading throughout the food chain, and beyond. At the third annual GreenFest, September 14-17 in Mattituck, crowds will turn out to hear music on a stage powered and lit by Southold-based Go Solar, which has installed solar panels at several nearby farms. The rides will run on biodiesel. Bob Ghosio, general manager of Burt’s Reliable, an energy firm based in Southold that is the largest supplier of biofuels in the region, says he’s seen a dramatic rise in use of renewable energy by both households and businesses. He noted that the 20-cents-a-gallon rebate offered on biodiesel is a great incentive in itself. But it’s also “a wonderful marketing tool,” for that price. “Look, there are an awful lot of people happy to be using a renewable fuel, something that might have been thrown away or grown domestically on a farm,” says Ghosio.

Burt’s has supplied biofuels, which generate fewer greenhouse gases than typical diesel, to dozens of wineries, farms, greenhouse operations and other businesses. Biofuels power irrigation pumps, tractors and trailers. Claudio’s Restaurant and the Frisky Oyster in Greenport use biofuels for their water heaters. And then there’s the North Fork Potato Chip Company, which converts much of its own fryer oil into fuel.

Yes, there is a parallel between local food and local energy. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time before I grasped why I couldn’t buy local corn in December. For years, I simply didn’t understand where my food came from, I only understood that it was there in the store for me to purchase.

In the same way, before I spoke with these farmers and energy firms I didn’t think too much about where my electricity came from. I had a vague idea that some dark enemy known as LIPA played an important role, but that’s as far as my understanding went. As it turns out, booting up my computer has been just as bad as buying an ear of Romanian corn. “Local energy” still isn’t a reality.

LIPA does not generate electricity. Instead, their mission is to procure it for their clients. This is why their new feed-in tariff program is a positive step in the right direction. They’ll be buying up to 50 megawatts of electricity from solar farms on Long Island, not from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest.

“We should be aware of where our energy comes from,” says Cléjan. “When you ask your child where meat comes from you don’t want them to say the supermarket. You want them to understand there was an actual cow involved. It had to live and be fed. When you ask them where their power comes from, you don’t want them to say, ‘the light switch.’”

Cléjan and other green energy advocates would like the idea of local energy to go even further. They envision a future where your house and even your automobile will generate electricity that feeds into a neighborhood management system. This idea is called the “smart grid.” Should the “smart grid” ever become reality, it would be something like buying tomatoes from your neighbor’s vegetable garden.

Energy couldn’t get more local.

Nearly 100 years ago the place where I now type was a farm. And on that farm, in the 1920s, the Kondratowitz family erected a windmill to pump water for their well. When I step outside my house and listen to it greet the wind, I smile. It makes a low gray sound, hardly discernible but steady, like a squeaky heartbeat.

The Kondratowitzes didn’t put up the windmill to be green, or for marketing purposes. They probably didn’t have to worry about an onerous approval process either. Renewable energy wasn’t buzzworthy.

They did it because it made sense. Because the wind is constantly swirling and it’s simply smart to harness its power.

Maybe they were onto something.

Christopher Gangemi writes and ruminates from his home in Sag Harbor.