Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater to get solar panels

Popular venue takes step toward solar sustainability

The Vail Valley Foundation this year will install a solar array on the western portion of the roof over the covered seating area at the facility.
Vail Valley Foundation/courtesy photo

Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater has evolved a lot since it opened in 1987. The latest evolution will make the ever-busier facility more sustainable.

While the town of Vail owns the amphitheater, the Vail Valley Foundation operates the facility, and has spearheaded several improvements over the years. Those improvements have largely improved the performance and audience spaces.

Officials at the Vail Valley Foundation now have plans this year to install an array of solar panels on a portion of the roof at the amphitheater. The array will cover the western portion of the four-section roof over the amphitheater’s reserved seating area. The panels are part of a broader project that will replace the roof membranes on all four panels. Those repairs are needed every several years and the amphitheater is due for the work

In an email, Vail Valley Foundation CEO Mike Imhof wrote that Zehren Architects and Sunsense Solar, the contractor, determined that the western roof portion is most suitable for a solar array.

A step toward sustainability

Imhof added that the foundation shares the town’s sustainability goals, writing that solar panels at the facility “is a significant step toward a material reduction in our carbon footprint.”

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The solar panels will cut an estimated 25% of the amphitheater’s current electricity use. Imhof wrote the project is estimated to repay the cost of installation and operation in seven or eight years. When the amphitheater’s energy needs are low, the panels will put electricity back into the Holy Cross Energy grid.

The project will include a kiosk on the amphitheater grounds so the public can see the amount of power being generated.

A new solar array on the campus of the Vail Public Works Department is part of a trend to find rooftops suitable for alternative energy installations.
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That’s already happening at the town of Vail’s public works campus. The town recently installed a solar array on the roof at one of the new buildings there. The installation covers about .75 acres, and can generate roughly 180 kilowatts of electricity. That will cover some needs at the facility. But Vail Public Works Department Director Greg Hall said charging one electric bus requires about 120 kilowatts.

Hall said those panels can also put electricity back into the Holy Cross grid. That’s done via switching and software that alerts the utility that power is coming into the grid, Hall said.

The project at the public works campus was originally supposed to be far larger, using roughly seven acres of land adjacent to the facility. But, Hall said, that project has been delayed since male bighorn sheep winter in that area. The solar panel project is on hold until a wildlife habitat improvement project is complete, Hall said.

Rooftops work well

While the Vail Valley Foundation doesn’t have any other places to put solar panels, Hall said Vail officials are investigating all the town’s buildings for future solar panel installations.

That’s happening across the region.

Mike Steiner, Key Accounts Specialist for Holy Cross Energy, said local governments and organizations across the utility’s service area are looking at ways to install solar panels on rooftops or on open land.

“School districts are really looking into” rooftop solar, Steiner said. But, he added, a lot of facilities supervisors are “rightfully” a little nervous about adding structures to existing roofs. Those people are looking at snow loads and other stresses on existing rooftops.

“It’s got to be the right project when you’re evaluating,” Steiner said. Roofs many not have the proper load-bearing ability, or there could be warranty issues with buildings.

Given the lack of buildable land in some areas, particularly those near resorts, Steiner said it can be “tricky” to find places for large solar array.

Steiner said Vail is on the right track as it works to transition to electricity and away from natural gas for energy use.

“The diligence they’re doing as they attempt to reduce their emissions” is impressive, he said.

Big ideas

The Vail Valley Foundation is also pondering other improvements to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, but none of those ideas has hit the planning stage.

Ideas include the eventual replacement of the seats at the facility, as well as expanding the box office, concessions and backstage areas.

Current talk about those ideas could result in construction starting in the fall of 2023.

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