Let the sun shine in to my home: How I Went Solar
Home solar advances a revolution in living responsibly
For the Aspen Times Weekly
On Friday Oct. 15, 2021 at 9:30 a.m., I heard the soft whirring of a pump. For the first time, heat from the sun was pumping into my home through a small solar hot water system that is warming my home with clean, renewable energy.
As homeowners, my wife and I feel we have made a solid investment in the future. With no guaranteed calculus for a payback, we nonetheless opted for a thermal solar system as a matter of principle and practicality. Warming our home against winter chill has never felt better.
Spending $2,300 of savings that was collecting zero interest in the bank made sense into dollars of eventual savings on the propane that otherwise fuels the boiler to heat our 2,000-square-foot home up the Frying Pan Valley. This investment was the right thing to do, and not just for financial reasons.
That lone panel on the south side of our home is aligned to capture the low winter sun and convert it into heat for our radiant floors. Hearing that pump whirr was for us a “Milagro Beanfield War” moment, a revolutionary step toward self-sufficiency when taking action against climate change bears an ethical judgment.
My wife and I are among a growing number of people whose awareness of climate has fostered a collective conscience and a willingness to act. We are actively invested in personal sustainability in a world awash with environmental ambivalence.
Striving for the smallest footprint possible on the planet is our act of global humility, a small but meaningful contribution that may be the only effective means of immediately turning the tide in the climate battle.
HARNESSING THE SUN, CAPTURING EFFICIENCY
The same week that our solar system was installed, I rode my bicycle down the Rio Grande Trail from Aspen to Basalt and passed the new solar array upvalley from Woody Creek, which had just come on line. Hundreds of panels mounted on a tilting framework apparatus that tracks the sun had been labeled an eyesore by some nearby residents.
For me, that photovoltaic array is not an eyesore, but rather an impressive embellishment. The electrons produced there are cutting emissions and reducing carbon. The life of these panels will bear out the value of a long-term investment, not only in energy production, but as a sign of a community taking action locally with the best technology available.
Coupled with any form of energy production must come a consciousness of how energy is used. Wasting energy, which many of us do, is the elephant in the room. Energy efficiency, when linked as a complement to clean, renewable power, gives double the value.
Energy wasted in excessive outdoor lighting, vast snowmelt surfaces and powering huge, empty vacation homes equates with Thorstein Veblen’s twin sins of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste.” Every consumer bears responsibility for something as simple as operating a light switch.
Solar panels make visible the responsible costs of generating heat and electricity, and they provide power in two ways: by giving energy to our homes and by making us feel empowered through the affirmative action of harnessing energy from the sun.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
Aspen Solar installed our 3-by-8-foot panel and the intricate plumbing that circulates a glycol solution, efficiently transferring the sun’s heat into my floors where pipes heat a poured concrete slab. Mike Tierney and James Ibbotson worked their techno-magic in my crawlspace by installing pump, control, sensor and a small network of copper pipes. When the pump kicks in, the system runs for pennies an hour.
Decades ago, the late Randy Udall, an old personal friend, provided through the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE) my first thermal system to defray the high price of propane. A pair of 4-by-8-foot panels collect the sun hitting our roof, and a small pump circulates hot water into a transfer tank that preheats our domestic hot water.
Randy’s idea in forming CORE in 1994 through the City of Aspen with Stephen Kanipe was to establish an entity that could, in part, levy fees against high energy-consuming amenities like heated outdoor pools, hot tubs and snowmelt surfaces, and use those fees to help pay for solar installations for homeowners like me.
Randy named that program the Renewable Energy Mitigation Plan (REMP) and he referred to himself as a “Robin Hood of energy” – taking from the rich and giving to the poor. As a recipient of Robin’s (I mean, Randy’s) largesse, my propane bills were slashed as were my energy and carbon footprints.
After our latest installation was completed in October, I applied to CORE for a rebate through an application process that required a home energy audit. Efficiency expert Charles Cady evaluated everything from roof to basement, from lighting to windows, and made recommendations for how we can further our home efficiency. The cost was $100, with free follow up consultation services. Our rebate was granted by CORE to cover 25% of our project cost.
“People don’t know how good it is,” explained Mac Scott of CORE. “We provide a really good service for a diverse range of projects with grants and rebates for residential and commercial installations. CORE can help figure out what your systems need.”
ASPEN’S HISTORIC ENERGY LEGACY
Today, when I hear the whirring of the efficient motors that drive my two clean, renewable solar systems, I hark back to 1885, when the City of Aspen became the first city west of the Mississippi River to light homes, streets and businesses with clean, renewable hydropower.
In 1893, the city innovated an expanded hydropower plant beneath the Castle Creek Bridge where the city shops are today. This allowed Aspen to produce hydropower for its own needs and even to export energy to downvalley communities. It also allowed Aspen to remain off the grid until 1958 when, during a financial downturn and due to rising infrastructure costs, Aspen city council voted to dismantle and scrap its state-of-the-art hydro plant and subscribe instead to the emergent national power grid.
Desirous of validating a “green” image, Aspen pursues hydropower today by establishing hydro plants on dams like Ruedi up the Frying Pan Valley, which has been providing renewable power to Aspen since 1985. The photovoltaic array near Woody Creek was initiated in Pitkin County based on the same value of producing power locally through sustainable systems.
Aspen manages its own municipal electric utility and is able to achieve efficiencies within its service area. Other serving utilities, like Holy Cross and Xcel Energy, are following suit on a larger, regional scale by offering sustainable energy options for their customers. The Aspen Skiing Company has also gotten involved with energy produced from burning methane emissions from a North Fork Valley coal mine to provide for energy demands at its four ski areas.
SPURRING INDIVIDUAL ACTIVISM
Being part of the solution is a driving force today as scores of nations strive to halt the damaging impacts of climate change. This international response can ideally become a unifying force toward advancing future global diplomacy for a common planetary goal.
The onus rests equally on the individual to regulate home energy use and to apply renewables wherever possible. Each of us has an opportunity for a Milagro Beanfield War moment of individual activism toward a global good.
Individually, we are either part of the solution or we go on blithely wearing the blinders of convenience and denial. Now is the time to strip off those blinders and let the sun shine in!
Paul Andersen, a contributing writer to the Aspen Times Weekly, has written for the Aspen Times for 36 years. He lives up the Frying Pan valley where the winter sun warms his toes.
Scaling up solar power in a region of abundant sunshine seems like a no-brainer, as a new study reveals. Covering Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties, it concludes: “Local solar and storage is an important part of an overall strategy for reaching 100% renewable energy goals in a way that benefits our communities.”
The study was produced this fall by local energy agencies: Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), Carbondale’s Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER), and the Walking Mountains Science Center in Eagle County. Together, these entities have laid out plans for how to tap the sun for gains in energy production and reductions in carbon emissions.
“The study is based on the premise that Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties comprise an interdependent region with common interests. The three counties are tied together by energy utility boundaries and an interconnected economy and workforce.”
Tying together the region for solar benefits is a huge step toward recognizing the global importance of solar energy and storage. This study describes acting locally and thinking globally.
Phi Filerman, CORE’s community sustainability manager, said “CORE was excited to see the study’s findings of how much potential there is for solar throughout our interdependent region and to understand the importance of its local development.”
Economic benefits from developing regional solar on the local economy could reach $73 million over the course of construction and up to $3.2 million annually in land-lease revenues, property taxes, operations and maintenance. An estimated 260 jobs could be created by solar.
The full report and a 23-page executive summary are available via the Western Colorado Clean Energy Network (wccleanenergy.org).
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The Aspen Art Museum’s 12-artist video exhibition “Mountain/Time” will open to the public on Friday. Curator Chrissie Iles explained in an interview what visitors should expect from the immersive show.