A Decade of PV Lighting in the Colorado Rockies

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Courtesy of Solar Energy International

Backcountry skiing in the Colorado Rockies is exhilarating and exhausting.There’s nothing better after a hard day of skiing through fresh powder than ending up at a mountain hut miles from the nearest town with a wood burning stove, comfortable beds and solar-powered lights.

This might sound like a dream too good to be true. Yet in the mountains between Aspen and Vail there is a system of ski huts called the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association (TMDHA). The “huts” are actually beautiful mountain lodges with everything you need for a pleasant relaxing night, including PV-powered lights.

The name “10th Mountain” honors the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army. Fifty years ago, at the brink of World War II, the U.S. War Department realized it was necessary to train mountain troops. The troops trained for two years in the Colorado Rockies. By 1945 they were in Italy where they had a crucial role in several battles.

Thanks to these troops, and to some dedicated Colorado skiers, we can say goodbye to the days of cold, winter camping and hauling lots of gear. We now get in all the Telemark turns we want and have a nice warm place to drink a glass of wine at night. There are twenty-two huts in all. Thirteen of them form a loop between Aspen and Vail. The other nine are located south of Aspen and are called the Alfred A. Braun Huts and the Friends Hut.

Why Solar?
TMDHA is a non-profit corporation, formed in the early 1980s, that manages the huts, which are linked together via intermediate ski touring trails. Each hut sleeps from 16 to 20 people, and anyone can make a reservation for the night.

One of the dilemmas from the very beginning was lighting the huts. At the time, TMDHA was spending $500 a year on fuel for each minimally lit hut. PVpowered lights seemed perfect for the remote cabins. Three professors from the local Colorado Mountain College (CMC) who were teaching classes on solar energy, set out to convince the TMDHA staff that solar was the way to go. That did not prove to be an easy task. The TMDHA Board was interested, but, as with any new technology, there were some reservations and many questions.

One of TMDHA’s big considerations was aesthetics. The huts are located in beautiful, pristine mountain settings. Some felt that backcountry skiers would regard the solar electric panels as detracting from the beauty and the rustic feeling of a high country experience. However, there were safety issues to consider. They were presently using volatile fuels for lanterns, along with a large number of candles. The first hut in the Braun Hut system, the Lindley Hut, burned to the ground because of a careless candle user. Environmental considerations also abounded. Hundreds of lantern sized propane tanks were becoming a disposal problem. Safety and the environment won out. The TMDHA staff decided to make a commitment to solar.

Requirements and More Requirements
Designing the systems was another story. The huts all experience extreme winter conditions. They are all over 8,000 feet in elevation where the temperature can get as low as 40F below zero. The users of the systems are people who are not trained or knowledgeable about solar electricity. Approximately 21,000 people use the huts each year, usually spending only one or two nights at each hut. Some of them would probably not realize they are using solar powered lighting, or even know what photovoltaics are! So the systems had to be reliable.

Although the solar design advocates didn’t want to inconvenience people, they did want to educate them about living with solar. The list of requirements for the systems was getting longer by the minute. Taking everything into account, for the PV systems to be effective, they needed to be reliable, understandable, manageable, educational, convenient, simple, sustainable, and low cost. Not an easy list to fulfill.

Nevertheless, when the systems were first installed in the early eighties, the CMC instructors assembled all of the basic components with these considerations in mind. To keep the systems as simple as possible, they were all 12 Volt DC systems. Inverters were not as dependable then, and reliability was crucial.

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