Wheeler Opera House to harness sun in new rooftop solar array in downtown Aspen
The historic Wheeler Opera House is getting a 21st-century update with 118 new solar panels on its roof.
Aspen City Council agreed Tuesday with the Historic Preservation Commission’s previous approval of putting up the maximum amount of panels.
That option was chosen over city staff’s recommendation to remove the 63 east-facing panels because of their visibility from certain areas of town, including the adjacent Mill Street and Hyman Avenue malls.
“Roofs are referred to as the ‘fifth façade’ given the visibility of Aspen’s built environment from mountaintop perspectives,” wrote Amy Simon, the city’s historic preservation officer, in a memo to council. “The proposed roof equipment in this project will be clearly visible from high vantage points.
“Staff finds that east-facing panels would detract from the historic character of this important and prominent building,” Simon continued. “The other proposed locations are more discreet and appropriate.”
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she has a hard time with solar panels on a historic structure but understands the need.
So does her colleague Ann Mullins.
“I love historic buildings to stay as pristine as possible,” but solar is a technology that saves energy and money for the Wheeler, and therefore worth it.
Councilman Skippy Mesirow said aesthetically, he likes the juxtaposition of where the town has been historically and where it is going in the future with renewable energy.
The solar panels are expected to have a 12% offset in energy use on the existing building, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings in energy use taxes.
However, planned snowmelt on a walkway next to the building to make loading and unloading safer will reduce that number, said Rob Schober, the city’s project manager in the capital asset department.
The panels, which will likely be installed in 2021 or the following year, will face east, south and west, as well lie flat on the roof.
Had the commission or council opted for fewer panels based on staff recommendation, it could have reduced the kilowatt production from 40kw to 14kw, according to Schober.
The panels are part of a larger infrastructure project for the Wheeler, which includes new mechanical equipment and minor exterior changes related to the existing freight elevator.
The city administratively approved a new chiller on the Wheeler’s roof that was installed during an emergency situation last summer after the air conditioning went out.
The city’s Community Development Department, however, flagged the mechanical permit that had been submitted because it doesn’t comply with the land-use code that was rewritten and approved by Aspen City Council in 2017.
“Unfortunately, the law that was passed by council … we can’t replace any piece of equipment on the roof because it affects the mountain view plane from (the Hotel Jerome),” Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler told the Times in May 2019.
After a preliminary review, the city’s Community Development Director Phillip Supino is prepared to issue approval of the new equipment, pending final verification by the chief building official that the chiller is appropriately sized to the use.
On Monday night, the City Council listened to ideas for each old building. However, nothing laid out what the community space would actually entail — only aspirations and gathered community comment.