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Solar farm harvests power for CMC in Leadville

By Kristin Carlson

Solar panels near CMC in Leadville.

The largest solar panel array in Lake County, at CMC in Leadville, sits on a ridge above the town, well over 10,000 feet in elevation and due east of the college’s Pinnacle Resource Center. The power output, measured in kilowatts, is sold back to Xcel Energy. Plans include xeriscaping in keeping with the alpine environment. Photo Scott Frost

The new solar farm at the Leadville campus of Colorado Mountain College is one of the first, large-scale solar arrays designed to maximize sustainable energy savings at a high altitude, where cold temperatures and heavy snows typically make energy conservation a challenge.

“Making the Leadville site work for sustainable energy production was groundbreaking,” said Scott Frost, physical plant manager at the campus. Because of the potentially heavy snowfalls at the college’s highest campus, the solar panels had to be mounted at an angle that would allow accumulated snow to melt and slide off easily. “They’re also mounted considerably higher than most,” Frost said, “to allow a margin on the ground for heavy snowfall.”

“This type of panel functions best in cooler temperatures,” he said. Planners have high expectations of the 432 ground-mounted panels. “Combine the reflection from the snow with the clear skies and the cool weather,” Frost explained, “and here at 10,000 feet, the panels will hopefully produce at around 120 percent capacity.”

The solar farm’s projected annual output of 152,000 kilowatt hours should provide more than half the energy needs for the campus’s New Discovery Academic Center. It’s a step in the right direction for the college, which aims to provide 15 percent of all its power needs from renewable sources by 2014.

Up-front and long-term benefits

Under a power purchase agreement, a group of third-party investors paid the up-front costs for the installation of the solar farm. The energy user, the college, pays a flat rate for electricity until the investors recoup their initial capital. At that point, sole ownership and maintenance of the panels may transfer to the college. Or, CMC may choose to continue the flat-rate payments. Either way, the college continues to save as retail utility rates rise.

While Colorado Mountain College enjoys savings over the short and long term, the investment group and owners of the panels, Hybrid Energy Group, benefits from government incentives and utility rebates. These returns, along with a monthly revenue stream from selling the electricity, provide a reliable earnings rate for investors.

According to Frost, the project invested in the local economy as well as in green technology. “It was especially great that we were able to involve area contractors in the site prep and installation,” he said. “In these economic times, it was important to be able to hire at least half a dozen local vendors.”

Part of a bigger picture

This project is just one of a host of ongoing Colorado Mountain College projects to support sustainability. Pete Waller, director of college facilities, explained that in keeping with the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, signed in 2009, CMC is making great strides to bring down energy usage collegewide.

In addition to the solar array that went online in Leadville, another was installed this year at the college’s campus in Rifle. Water conservation measures have been set into motion at all CMC campuses, and single-pane windows in older buildings are being replaced. All new construction is aimed at employing green and energy-efficient design and construction, with any new classroom buildings built to a silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standard.

“CMC has also invested in occupancy sensors and timers on parking and exterior lighting systems,” Waller said. “And it all ties in with our new bachelor’s degree in sustainability studies.”

Savings redirected to teaching and learning

Not only does the new solar array reduce the carbon footprint of the college, according to Mike Simon, vice president of the Leadville campus, it makes more funding available for the primary mission of the college — teaching and learning.

“What we’re not spending on electricity, we can invest in our students and instruction,” said Simon. “It’s important to be good stewards of our students’ and taxpayers’ money, and reducing our carbon footprint is just the right thing to do in this day and age.”