Solar Power Outside the Sunbelt

Whether you are in Maine, British Columbia or Alaska you can still use the sun to power your home.

| April/May 1999

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    PV power is clean, efficient, and has no moving parts.
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    After reading by gas lamps and candles for 50 years, hut visitors are finally able to turn on the lights
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    Originally mounted flush with the roof, the PV panels are now being retrofitted and mounted on poles to take advantage of the higher summer sun.

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Think you have to live in New Mexico to get enough sun to run all your lights and appliances with photovoltaic panels? Maybe you live in Minnesota or Maine and can't see the sun from November to March. Or in British Columbia or Alaska, where surely temperatures are too frigid to efficiently upkeep solar panels. Well, you just might be unfairly dismissing the solar option. It's time you heard about a new system of panels that operates year-round above 8,000 feet, in one of the coldest, stormiest stretches of the Colorado Rockies. In winter, the panels withstand wind, snow, ice, low light, and temperatures that drop to -40°F.

The power system was designed for the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which maintains a network of ski huts—24 in all, 13 looped between Aspen and Vail—that are linked together by cross-country ski trails. A working experiment in solar for extreme weather conditions, the 12-volt DC system has been upgraded several times since it was installed in 1982. And as the photovoltaic (PV) industry evolves, adding on to and upgrading the system is becoming less and less expensive.

Built in the 1940s for the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, the huts were initially used to train American troops for mountain combat in the Alps during World War II. Each hut sleeps between 16 and 20 people and is about the size of an average family home. Originally, fuel lanterns and candles lit the huts, but as the number of recreational visitors increased, disposal of hundreds of lantern-sized propane tanks became problematic for the not-for-profit 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. When one of the huts burned in a fire started by a candle, the organization made the decision to install new lights. PV was not an obvious choice, given backcountry skiers' interest in preserving the pristine and rustic look of the remote but system. The solar panel, though efficient, is certainly not rustic-looking. But in the end, practicality won out over aesthetics.

Instructors Johnny Weiss and Ken Olson of Solar Energy International (SEI), a nonprofit, renewable energy education and training organization, designed a system for the huts that is able to endure severe conditions, but is otherwise not so different from any other solar power system.

"The only real difference is in the voltage," says Scott Ely of SunSense, a one-man solar installation company based in Snowmass, Colorado, that has an ongoing maintenance contract with the Hut Association. "When the cells are hot, they lose voltage." In other words, desert systems need higher voltage panels than cold weather systems do.

The 10th Mountain system relies on one to six panels per hut. Originally, the huts were for winter use only; so SunSense, along with SEI students and instructors, mounted panels flush with the side of the house. (SEI has kept its students involved in the solar but project, using upgrades and maintenance as teaching opportunities.)

The original panel installations worked well with snow reflection and low winter sun. But now the huts have been given U.S. Forest Service permits for summer use, and so the panels are being retrofitted and mounted on poles to accommodate the higher summer sun angle.

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