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Sonoma sustainabilty innovator Craig Wooster dies at 66

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A larger-than-life man recognizable by his affable nature and oft-worn pith helmet, Craig Wooster’s jovial demeanor hid the brilliance within.

As the project manager, general contractor and kingpin behind the Stone Edge Farm MicroGrid, Wooster’s inquisitive mind knew almost no bounds and his devotion to sustainability was unmatched, except perhaps by the farm’s owners, former Wells Fargo Bank investment director Mac McQuown and his wife Leslie.

Wooster passed away of apparent heart failure while working at the farm on Oct. 16. He was 66.

The loss for the team at Stone Edge and to the micro-grid project is devastating and, to the community at large, losing the knowledge that Craig possessed is palpable.

Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery rests on a bucolic 16 acres of property at the foot of Sonoma Mountain. The farm produces an abundance of organically grown produce including heirloom vegetables of every type, fruit and olives, flowers, eggs, honey and wine grapes, world-class cabernet in particular. The property is also home to the McQuowns, who are both dedicated to addressing the issue of climate change -- and this is where the microgrid comes into play.

“I worked with Craig every week for the past five years and knew him to be an incredibly rare human,” said Mac McQuown. “He combined vision, determination and curiosity with great skill in dealing with both physical reality as well the people with whom he worked. And, he had a jolly personality and enjoyed life to its fullest.”

A self-contained energy generation network, the microgrid stores electricity from solar panels in seven different types of batteries, including non-toxic sodium ion, iron salt water, and lithium iron phosphate technologies, as well as in the form of hydrogen gas. Stone Edge has achieved a negative carbon footprint by efficiently generating, storing and distributing clean energy to all parts of its property.

The microgrid is so effective that during the October fires, the estate was able to remain energy self-sufficient despite the disruption that surrounded it, running independently from the utility grid and monitored from afar by cell phone.

In August of this year, Leslie McQuown flipped a switch that made Stone Edge Farm a permanent “island” of independent energy. The microgrid was Wooster’s baby and he led a team of engineers and interns who, together through trial and error, experimented, innovated and explored the boundaries of clean energy development.

Earlier this year, the microgrid was named one of 13 winners of California’s highest environmental honor, the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA). GEELA honors individual, organizations and businesses that have demonstrated exceptional leadership and have made notable contributions in conserving California’s resources. Stone Edge Farm was one of five awardees in the Sustainable Practices category for its “advanced technology to generate, store and distribute clean energy to its property and beyond.”

Microgrid University

Some of the people to whom McQuown refers are the 80-plus interns who have worked on the microgrid over the past five years. He only half jokingly calls the project the “Stone Edge Farm Microgrid University,” and it is, in fact, a real work lab where diverse technologies are deployed to demonstrate the concept of a sub-zero carbon footprint. To invent and introduce this new business model, the McQuowns hire (paid) interns from high school to the post-doctoral level to attack the energy paradigm on many levels. The interns are given broad direction and empowered to seek solutions that reduce carbon without fear of failure. In fact, part of the employment contract is that they are expected to “make mistakes.”

Ryan Stoltenberg is the head of the Stone Edge Farm internship program and describes Wooster as an “extremely influential boss and mentor.”

“He saw complex things clearly and simply and he gave all of us confidence in working in the field as well as working with people,” said Stoltenberg. “He always had a calming effect on staff, customers, and visitors that assured them that we were on the right path.”

Stoltenberg said Wooster’s “far-sighted” vision in the microgrid industry will inspire others to “see his visions through.”

Hired as an electrical technician in 2014 after graduating from Chico State with a BS in Environmental Science, Stoltenberg worked under the construction company on the microgrid project for a year and a half doing installations and electrical work. Once he grasped the potential the project provided, he returned to school to complete a Master’s, working part time while getting his degree.

To that end, the Stone Edge microgrid has spawned a sister project at Stone Edge’s Silver Cloud Vineyard high atop Cavedale Road. McQuown and the rest of the team -- including Craig’s son, Troy Wooster, Jorge Elizondo, Stoltenberg and project manager Michael DelValle -- share McQuown’s sentiment of “staying the course.”

Wooster is survived by his wife, Carol, and two sons Trent and Troy. It is Troy Wooster who has worked under his father on the microgrid project at Stone Edge Farm.

“My dad left a big hole in the business and with many projects open,” Troy told the Index-Tribune via email. “But the team here is committed to continuing where he left off.”

Dan Gustafson is a consultant working for Stone Edge Farm. Gustafson eulogized Wooster at a Celebration of Life held at Stone Edge in early November. He kept the mood light, joking about Wooster’s signature “headgear,” the pith helmet, and the microgrid, which Wooster helped him to comprehend.

“Craig kept his eye on the future, envisioning microgrid buildings and communities, carbon removal and sequestration, and a host of other emergent technologies,” said Gustafson. “He understood that by trusting people you elicit trust from them. I know how grateful he was for the McQuowns’ support, and how he expressed his gratitude with loyalty. The midrogrid now stands as a monument to Craig and all that he stood for.”

Christian Kallen contributed to this story.