Solar garden

Telluride Last Dollar Solar Garden began generating power from the sun in January. (Photo courtesy of Tim Erdman/Erdman Energy Enterprises)

The power of the sun is being fed into the grid, thanks to the Telluride Last Dollar Solar Garden, which went live in January.

Tim Erdman of Erdman Energy Enterprises jumped through all the necessary hoops last year and earned approval for a special use permit from first the San Miguel County Planning Commission and then the Board of County Commissioners to install a solar array on a 1.6-acre parcel of land 500 feet north of Telluride Regional Airport. It lies on a portion of a 36-acre parcel Erdman owns and on which he will one day build a residence.

Erdman had already been approved by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, having determined it will fall under Tri-State’s 5 percent cap rule that requires San Miguel Power Association (SMPA) purchase 95 percent of its electricity from Tri-State. That allowed SMPA to purchase locally generated, renewable electricity from the array. 

As with any construction project, much less one freighted with the passion that Erdman has had his whole professional life for seeing alternative energy solutions become reality, there was some stress involved, he admits.

“I did not sleep for a lot of nights,” he said.

The project broke ground in late August and started supplying the grid Jan. 7 from an array comprised of 812 solar panels. Those panels, Erdman said are innovative, bi-facial panels that absorb from both sides. They are one of the first arrays in the state using that type of panel. The solar facility will generate 366 kilowatts, 274 kW of which will be sold to SMPA. The remainder of the power generated will be used for a single-family residence that has not yet been built.

“This is one of the newer developments in solar manufacturing,” he said of the quarter-inch thick panels.

The panels are touted for being able to generate 30 percent more power, melt the snow (“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Erdman laughed.), and for keeping themselves cooled.

The installation, relative to other solar farms, including the one in Paradox, is not large. This array is the first — and so far the only — installation of its kind in the east end of the county.

“It’s not a big installation,” Erdman said. “It’s a demo project, but big enough to be real.”

BOCC chair, Hilary Cooper is delighted the array is online and is looking to a future that holds more solar projects.

“On the scale of our regional energy use Tim's solar farm might be a small contribution, but it is a huge accomplishment and step towards getting more solar energy in this region,” Cooper said. “His dedication, patience and enthusiasm overcame so many obstacles. Now that Tri-State has lifted its restrictions on community solar farms, we hope that Tim can expand his project and other solar developers will propose more solar farms in appropriate locations throughout the county.” 

Before the array could start feeding its 274 kW into the grid, a number of infrastructure challenges and construction problems had to be solved and then executed. Erdman said the level of innovation, muscle and teamwork that went into the project was remarkable. The project involved carving access to the site, trenching and specialty poles for the racks and the construction of a utility shed.

“It’s been truly a local story and we had a wonderful connection with Nucla” in the course of the project, Erdman said. Mike “Swany” Swanson was the project’s general contractor.

“He set the standard for not stopping until the job was done right. Swany and his company, Swanson Timber Frames, were instrumental in getting the job done well and on time,” Erdman said. “He hired Mike Kimball, Jr. and Sr., the owners of Ground Pounders, who improved and graveled the access roads and did the excavation and leveling for the equipment shed and work areas. 

“Their backhoe operator, Terry Boekhout from Nucla, was an absolute dirt artist in the way he carefully shaped the earth to appear as if nature had done it. He preserved the topsoil and placed it back on the finished grade.”

Boekhout turned to longtime friends from Nucla who got the recycled pipe and the drilling equipment needed for the solar racking. The electrical aspect of the project was executed and will be maintained by CAM Electric, whose expertise, Erdman said, was invaluable.

Erdman expressed gratitude to the team, which also included: Northstar Drilling, Paul Clark, Little Maverick Trucking, Randy Sutherland, Viking Rentals, Alpine Lumber, Chuck Choate, Chris Carlile and Tom Quist, Montrose/Colona Alternative Power Enterprises, and SMPA’s Terry Schuyler and Wiley Freeman.

The project’s special use permit conditions include Colorado Parks and Wildlife-approved fencing around the array, and come the warmer weather, landscaping.

The array is nearly invisible from Last Dollar Road and Erdman said it cannot be seen from Lift 9.

“Solar energy works and it’s not that ugly,” Erdman said. “It’s a responsible thing to do.”

For those interested in applying for a 20-year energy subscription, visit telluridesolargarden.com. Erdman can be contacted at telluridesolargarden@gmail.com.