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El Jebel family fuels its cars with power from the sun

Jordan Curet/The Aspen TimesJim Duke stands in front of the private solar farm he installed at his residence in El Jebel, Colorado. The system powers his home and the two electric cars he recently bought.
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EL JEBEL, Colorado ” It figures that a guy who owns a mule by the name of Fart Blossom would come up with an innovative idea to help save the world.

El Jebel, Colorado resident Jim Duke recently bought two electric cars to handle part of his family’s daily transportation needs, and they invested in a significant-sized solar electric system to offset their household power consumption and to fuel the cars.

The Dukes are doing as much as anyone and more than the vast majority of families in the Roaring Fork Valley to reduce their carbon footprint, or the impact of their activities on the environment by the production of greenhouse gases. Duke considers it an obligation for households to become carbon neutral to help save the planet.



“It’s way, way, way past the point for talk,” he said. “It’s time for action.”

Duke has always been environmentally oriented. He helped Pitkin County establish its recycling and composting programs at the landfill in the 1980s, earning him the informal title of “Duke of the Dump.” Aspen and Pitkin County drew national attention for Duke’s innovative ways of diverting organic materials from the waste stream.



Now he operates a company called Caca Loco at the South Canyon Landfill west of Glenwood Springs. The company turns municipal solid waste into compost.

The book “Hot, Flat and Crowded” by New York Times columnist and frequent Aspen visitor Thomas Friedman was part of his inspiration for taking greater personal responsibility for his family’s carbon production. He also is wary of waiting for government leadership. The government has a tendency to focus on awareness programs; Duke wants implementation programs.

The Dukes installed an 11-kilowatt solar electric system last fall near their comfortable log cabin between El Jebel and Catherine. The system will produce about 15,000 kilowatt hours annually, which will offset most if not all the family’s power consumption and provide juice for the two cars. Fifty-six gleaming solar panels soak in the sun from a perch on a berm that deflects highway noise at the Duke’s cozy spread, dubbed Little Asspen in honor of their mules.



The solar electric system is large for a residential use, but not the largest in the area, according to Steve Haines, a solar consultant with Sunsense Solar in Carbondale, which designed and built the system.

To put it in perspective, Duke’s system is about the same size as the system the Aspen Skiing Co. installed at the Thunder River Lodge, an employee housing project in Carbondale. The Skico and Colorado Rocky Mountain School installed a 150-kilowatt system at the school’s campus last year, making it one of the largest of its kind on the Western Slope.

The Dukes invested $84,600 in upfront costs. They are eligible for a federal investment tax credit of 30 percent of the gross cost, or about $25,000, Haines said. The bailout package approved by U.S. Congress late last year removes a $2,000 cap for people who install solar electric systems. That provides obvious advantages but also has tax implications that should be thoroughly explored, Haines said.

In addition to the tax credit, the Dukes are eligible for a $20,000 rebate from Holy Cross Energy and a $6,000 rebate from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, based in Aspen. Those rebates must be counted as taxable income.

The Dukes are getting their money’s worth. Duke said they got rid of their gas stove and converted their gas boiler to an electric boiler for their household heat. That was a move designed to wean the family off carbon-producing uses they couldn’t offset ” natural gas ” to a power source they could offset. The DC power from the panels is fed to an inverter which changes it to AC power for the house.

“Power produced by the sun is used by the house first,” Haines said.

Any remaining power is fed into the grid. The Dukes are paid at the wholesale rate by Holy Cross for the power they contribute to the grid.

In addition to powering their house, the Dukes plug their cars into outlets scattered around their yard that are tied into the solar electric system. They bought two models of Miles Electric Vehicles, which are made in China and purchased at Berthod Motors in Glenwood Springs. The compact but comfy vehicles seat four, or in Jim’s case, usually him and the two dogs.

The family figures the electric vehicles are good for traveling the 3 miles to El Jebel for trips to the grocery store and other errands. The vehicles run about 30 miles per full charge. It takes between four and five hours for a full charge, at a price of about 25 cents or a little less than a penny per mile.

Duke also offers free plug-in service to any owner of an electric vehicle.

“It’s sort of an empty promise since there’s so few around,” he said. “It’s more of a challenge or just a way to draw attention to how cheap these cars are to drive.”

He hopes his offer inspires the towns of Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs to offer free plug-in service to drivers of electric vehicles as an incentive to get more of them on the road.

The solar electric system will also help power the greenhouse where the family grows greens and vegetables year round.

All the various steps are part of a grand scheme by Duke, 55, to be carbon neutral before he leaves this world.

“I’m going to be going down with zero footprint when I go,” he said with a smile.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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