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Graduate students at Western seek to solarize Gunnison

Launch party Thursday

By Lauren Porter

Imagine a world that ran on clean, renewable energy. What would it look like, and what does it take to get there? Ellen Ross and Hunter Edberg, candidates in the Master in Environmental Management Program at Western Colorado University, seek to answer these questions in their 13-week outreach campaign called Solarize Gunnison County.

Over the next 13 weeks, Ross and Edberg will host several events to educate the public on their campaign and the significance of going solar. The launch event will be hosted at High Alpine Brewery on Thursday, January 31 from 5 to 7 p.m.

In partnership with Coldharbor Institute and Nunatak Alternative Energy Solutions, Ross and Edberg are promoting discounted opportunities for solar panel installations in the city of Gunnison, Gunnison County and Lake City.

This program is designed to make the concept of clean energy more attainable for business and homeowners in the area. The discounts will be achieved through a tiered system. The more kilowatts that are accomplished through residential or commercial sign ups, the bigger the increase on overall tier price reduction.

There is also a federal tax incentive that includes a 30 percent credit for your total system costs. This featured tax credit will taper off and eventually expire by 2022, so now is the prime time to consider these solar options.

“We are doing soft cost marketing for Nunatak to advertise that this is available. We have also been speaking with people about solar energy and what issues have kept them from getting solar in the past. We want to explore what those barriers are and how we can address them so that solar is more accessible for the average resident,” Ross said.

One of the biggest barriers that Ross and Edberg aim to shed light on through this campaign is the high cost of solar installations in our region. Edberg explained that solar here in Gunnison County is not as economically competitive as it is in other areas of the country.

“Part of the national average payback for a solar system is about seven and a half years. After that it is essentially giving off free energy. Here in Gunnison, we have such cheap electricity rates that it takes a lot longer to pay off those energy costs. Besides the cheap electricity, Nunatak must use enhanced equipment during installation just to compensate for the snow loads. Then the standard of living here makes it a little bit less cost-effective, so all these factors combined make the average payback about 14 to 15 years,” Edberg said.

To put it into perspective: The normal lifespan of the solar panels is about 20 to 25 years. After it is paid off, you are guaranteed around five to 10 years of free energy. Most important, you have the benefit of reducing your carbon footprint by a landslide within this timeframe.

The installation process is very site specific, but the average cost is usually around $12,000 to $15,000. According to Ross and Edberg, there is a pretty good range of financing options to choose from within their program.

To get started, customers register either online or by mail. This makes them eligible for a free remote site assessment to determine the best installation route. Once that is established, the information is passed onto Nunatak, and they quote you a final price that reflects the 30 percent tax credit and includes the required permits. The 13-week period to sign into the program begins on Friday, February 1.

Ross and Edberg’s goal for the project is to max out the capacity of Nunatak’s installations, which could potentially be up to 25 installations in a year. If this is accomplished, it is projected that 100 kilowatts could be added in the Gunnison Valley. With an approximate net meter capacity of 400 kilowatts, this is the first step in efficiently harnessing the true potential of free energy.

To learn more about what is to come and how to get involved, visit their website at

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