Parachute celebrates I-70 rest area solar flowers |

Parachute celebrates I-70 rest area solar flowers

Parachute residents, town trustees, staff and solar contractors gathered Friday to celebrate the grand opening of the town’s I-70 rest area solar flowers.

Aaron Milton of El Sol Solar switched on the array at 9 a.m., one hour before the grand opening ceremony. By 10:30 a.m., the solar electric flowers were pushing excess clean electricity onto the regional power grid through the electric meter on the rest area’s bathroom facility.

“That meter over there is running backwards,” said Parachute Mayor Judy Beasley. “We are excited beyond belief that this is happening.”

The solar flowers are one of three solar energy projects being installed for the Town of Parachute through the Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative, using energy impact funds provided by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Xcel Energy Solar*Rewards rebates are also helping to fund the arrays.

Larger, conventional arrays are also being installed on Town Hall and on the town’s water treatment plant. All together, the three arrays will generate 23 kilowatts of clean electricity, saving the town money on its energy bills.

The Parachute Board of Trustees expected to have conventional arrays for the water plant and Town Hall. But they asked solar installers bidding on the job to come up with a creative application of solar energy for the town’s popular rest area, which draws thousands of I-70 travelers every year.

“It was a challenge to all the companies that bid to come up with a unique project,” said Parachute Mayor Pro-Tem Judith Hayward, who is also Parachute’s representative to the Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative Advisory Board. Hayward said the flower design ties in to another point of pride in Parachute, the unique and endangered Parachute Penstemon flower, which grows only in the Roan Cliffs area north of Parachute.

“Now that they see this, people are saying that if they knew solar could be this pretty, they’d have put it in a long time ago,” said Bob Knight, Parachute’s town administrator. “With these flowers, we will continue to push the solar industry, and it’s an opportunity to help educate people on solar.”

While they are artful, the solar flowers proved to be a “daunting” construction challenge, said solar installer Ed Cortez, owner of El Sol Solar of Carbondale. The framework for the flowers had to be engineered and fabricated to withstand fierce gusty winds that can hit Parachute from several directions.

“We had to make sure they were strong enough to not topple over and stiff enough not to vibrate in the wind,” said Mic Baca, a professional engineer with Pattillo Associates Engineers of Glenwood Springs, who engineered the flowers.

The design called for a heavy grade of steel pipe to serve as the stem, which was then bolted to a large concrete block buried a foot underground. Extra engineering also went into the framework that supports the petals, Baca said.

Garfield Steel and Machine of Rifle fabricated the flowers’ framework. While the company took a loss on this job, project manager Paul Gatzke described his vision for a string of solar flowers extending along I-70 from the Utah line to the Continental Divide.

“As we get to the higher elevations, we can make them as columbines or even as an aspen tree,” Gatzke said. “We aim to drive the price down and see how many flowers we can get installed.

Several speakers at the grand opening event looked back to the start of the Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative, which began two years ago with a joint grant application from nine local governments that was coordinated by the nonprofit CLEER, Clean Energy Economy for the Region.

“When we started, no one knew if the large communities and the small communities could work together toward a common goal,” said Meredith Robinson, the Town of Silt’s representative to the Garfield NECI Advisory Board. “It turned out we were able to do so, and we have made a big difference.”

The Town of Parachute provided a $5,000 local match to the $1.6 million grant awarded by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, noted Elyse Ackerman, regional manager for DOLA in Grand Junction.

“Parachute leveraged all these projects with $5,000. The DOLA funding brings the ability for each of these local governments to take the dollars and really make something happen,” Ackerman said.

Robinson read a list of 16 solar energy projects being installed from Parachute to Carbondale by the Garfield NECI, and mentioned the energy efficiency programs for government, businesses and households that Garfield NECI is also offering.

“These projects have already saved thousands of dollars, and we are driving the clean energy economy in our county with jobs and business growth,” Robinson said.

For more information on the Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative’s solar arrays and energy efficiency programs for households, businesses and governments, visit

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