Solar 'Wings' Power Swiss Ski Lift

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The tiny Swiss ski town of Tenna has an impressively large claim to fame. Although larger, well-known ski resorts overshadow it, when their aging ski lift needed replacing, Tenna invested in building one of the world's first solar-powered ski lifts.

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Tenna, a farming village in eastern Switzerland not far from resorts such as St. Moritz and Davos, has a population of about 112. As the mayor, Thomas Buchli, told Michele Andina of SwissInfo.ch in a video interview recently, "When it was time to restore the old lift, we thought we could run it on solar power since we already have a lot of solar panels on the roofs our our stables." Clearly they're not your average farming community.

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The lift, which began operating in mid-December, had to address a key challenge: There wasn't enough room on the lift station roof for all the solar panels they needed. To solve this, they designed a suspension bridge of solar panel "wings" above the lift, which is nearly 500 yards long. The panels rotate to follow the sun and can be tilted to release snow if they start to get covered.

Although there were concerns that suspension ropes laden with 82 "wings" would mar the idyllic mountain landscape, the setup turned out to be fairly subtle with the panels hanging at slight angles, making them look like black diamonds. The lift stays busy, shuttling 800 skiers an hour, writes Adventure Journal's Michael Frank.

On sunny days, the lift produces twice as much power as it consumes, according to Andina. In the springtime when ski season ends, it becomes a mini solar power plant. The investment wasn't cheap: $1.5 million, but the lift is expected to produce 90,000 kilowatt hours annually — well beyond the 21,000 kilowatt hours needed to run it during the season.

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Tenna claims to have the world's first solar-powered ski lift, but I'm not sure whether that's technically true. A resort in Westendorf, Austria, unveiled a solar-powered drag lift called "Sonnenlift" in 2008 that generates 12,000 kilowatt hours annually. In Colorado, the Steamboat ski resort says it has the only chairlift in the U.S. to be powered by solar energy.

As a Vermont native who lives in Colorado, you'd think I'd be an old pro at ski lifts. You'd be wrong. Last time I hit the slopes, I clung to the lift bar for dear life. Still, put more slick-looking solar power strings up there and I might just be convinced to brave it again.

Photo: The Swiss village of Tenna has the world's first ski lift directly powered by sunlight. Credit: Solar Lift Tenna.

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