Oregon hazelnut company celebrates shift to solar power

For the last few months, the hazelnut processing plant in Hubbard has been pushing out nuts on nothing but the power of the hot, summer sun.

The plant, owned by NW Hazelnut Company, is, according to co-owner Larry George, the first in the world to have solar panels that can provide all its energy.

“It’s a great marketing tool to be able to say to manufacturers, ‘Look at what Oregon is doing,’” George said.

Although the plant has been processing hazelnuts on solar energy since July 1, the ribbon cutting ceremony took place Sept. 1, commemorating the sustainability shift. The ceremony was attended by Gov. Kate Brown – noteworthy particularly because George was once a staunchly conservative state legislator – in a display of bipartisanship support of the efforts of clean power in Oregon industry.

“It’s a huge honor to have the governor come in and do the ribbon cutting with us,” George said.

"Northwest Hazelnut is one of many examples that prove that Oregon can be a meaningful part of the solution to global climate challenge, while creating jobs and boosting our economy. This is a proud moment for rural Oregon and our agricultural sector," the governor's office wrote in a statement.

The ceremony was also attended by a representative from Ferrero, an Italy-based chocolate company that produces Nutella, a hazelnut product. It was Ferrero that encouraged George to pursue the project in the first place.

“They asked us to be innovative,” George said. “It just kind of matched perfectly with what we were doing.”

The panels come from Earthlight Technologies, which produces solar panels from recycled material. George said the project, including the replacement of halogen lights in the facility with LEDs, ran up a bill of roughly $1 million. With the energy savings and government incentives, however, George plans to offset the costs within 5 years.

The company estimates using solar energy will save about $60,000 per year compared to traditional electricity.

Polly Onowen of the Hazelnut Marketing Board was unable to confirm if the all-solar plant is truly the first in the world, but said that “nobody else has anything like that going on” as far as she knew.

Although the shift in energy source will have no direct impact on the day-to-day work of employees at the plant, sustainability efforts in general are helping grow the hazelnut industry and the jobs it provides.

According to Onowen, Oregon already produces 99 percent of hazelnuts in North America, but only makes up 4 percent of the market worldwide. This may change soon, however.

Onowen said production will soon follow, as less than half of those trees have fully matured.

George began George Packing Company with his brother in 1993, soon after graduating Oregon State University in 1991. The pair acquired NW Hazelnut 20 years later. All told, their processing plants account for 48 percent of the hazelnut production in North America, according to George.

With such a hefty weight of the industry, the brothers are planning to move their two other processing plants toward solar in the next decade as well, and not stop there.

The next step might be a biomass project, in which the plants would burn hazelnut shells for power. George said that idea isn’t too far out either.

“Between a couple of these projects, we’re really feeling like we have momentum going forward to create something great," said Shaun George, also an OSU graduate.

He said these kinds of projects just make sense.

“There’s not a single person that we work with that doesn’t care about that. Every farmer cares, every buyer cares, so we care too. It was a no-brainer move for us," he said.

For the brothers, this is all a natural development from the route they’ve been on for decades, having grown up on a hazelnut farm in Newberg,  which was also the site of their first processing plant.

Larry George said he is excited about the prospects for growth after some uncertain years in the industry. It's only up from here, he said.

“I think people are very excited about what’s happening in the tree-nut industry. We have such a healthy industry, low-impact, and it produces a high-protein food,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love Nutella.”

© 2017 KGW-TV


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