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Solar-powered Gondola Saving Clean Mountain Air in Colorado

Visiting Telluride, Colorado, the first thing you notice, besides the spectacular mountain view, is a free gondola. The gondola, traveling from the town of Telluride to the town of Mountain Village, is the first and only free public transportation of its kind in the United States. It was built to improve air quality in the region by keeping cars off the road.

Free gondola traveling between the town of Telluride and town of Mountain Village

“We created the free gondola for the right to build this town,” said Deanna Drew, director of plaza & environmental services at Mountain Village. With the condition to keep as many vehicles off the road as possible, Mountain Village was incorporated in 1995 to join 20 towns in San Miguel County and has become one of the world’s top resort destinations.

About 2.25 million hikers, mountain bikers, festival-goers, skiers, and locals take the free gondola each year, enjoying the view from 10,500 feet. But there is one catch. Operating the gondola requires about 2 million kilowatts hours (kWh) of electricity a year. The electricity used is mostly generated by coal-fired power plants.

The town launched the Green Gondola Project to supply the gondola with locally generated solar energy. Donation boxes were placed at gondola terminals to raise money. The town also worked closely with San Miguel Power Associations (SMPA), the region’s rural electric cooperative, to explore renewable options.

Mountain Village first participated in the SMPA’s Green Block Program, which allows SMPA members to purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) — premiums paid to support locally produced renewable energy. “Since 2005, we purchase Green Blocks from SMPA to offset 100 percent of the gondola’s (electricity) use,” stated Drew. Each Green Block represents 100 kWh and is sold for 1 dollar. Because the gondola uses 2 million kWh per year, it can be translated into $20,000 worth of Green Blocks purchased each year. SMPA reinvests the proceeds of the Green Block Program to the community to fund the development of local renewable energy sources.

The town is also participating in SMPA’s community-owned solar program.  In December 2012, SMPA completed the 1.1-MW solar PV system in Paradox Valley, Colorado. It is "the nation’s largest community-owned solar array,” said Brad Zaporski, manager of member services at SMPA.

SMPA Community Solar Farm at Paradox Valley, Colorado. Credit SMPA

SMPA members can participate in the community solar program by purchasing as few as one panel or enough to offset 100 percent of their electricity needs at home. Each solar panel is 235 watts and costs $700. Each panel generates the equivalent of $40-45 worth of electricity each year. SMPA directly credits the member's monthly electric bill at 11 cents/kWh (with a 1 percent annual escalator) for the power their panel produces, according to Zaporski. Mountain Village currently owns five panels from the array.

“We know that technically RECs do not reduce our electricity use, do not decrease our electricity costs, or decrease its GHG emissions. So we are also trying to install renewable on-site, rather than purchasing RECs,” said Drew. 

With riders’ donations toward the Green Gondola Project, Mountain Village installed a 10-kW solar system at the Town Hall gondola station in the fall of 2013. The system produces about 15,000 kWh per year. The town’s goal is to replace 20 percent of the gondola's electricity usage with locally generated renewable energy, adopting the state’s climate action plan to reduce GEG emissions 20 percent by the year 2020. Currently, solar provides about 1.5 percent of the gondola’s electricity usage.

10-kW solar system at the Town Hall gondola station at Mountain Village, Colorado

On July 17, a town council meeting was held where participants discussed whether or not to stop purchasing RECs and instead put that money toward on-site renewables. “Let’s designate money for more projects here in the community to increase alternative energy (than continuing buying RECs). Keep money here and do good things,” stated a council member.

To meet its 20 percent goal, the town needs to develop about 270 kW worth of solar resources. Or better yet, it can develop 1.3 MW worth of solar resources onsite to 100 percent power up the gondola.  Besides lack of funding, the town doesn’t have the seven acres of flat land similar to where the 1-MW SMPA community-owned solar was developed.

Being the main base of the Telluride Ski Resort community, the town’s land consists largely of ski slopes and forests, hotels, restaurants, shops, vacation homes and condominium rentals. These available rooftops may be able to provide enough solar energy without obstructing the spectacular mountain views and most importantly to keep the air clean.

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