Summertime means big days on the trail and refreshing ones on the water. But at AMC, it wasn’t just people who were soaking up the sun. Solar panels have been popping up at AMC properties across the region, from slanted roofs to backfields in the backcountry.
At Zealand Falls Hut, AMC’s on-staff construction crew added a new solar array, meaning the entire High Mountain Hut system is now solar-powered. The AMC Highland Center in New Hampshire, with support from the Highland Partners Charitable Fund, worked with Revision Energy on a 204-panel array that will offset an estimated 114,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. And at the volunteer-led AMC Cold River Camp, local contractors are installing panels that will power a recently renovated fully electric commercial kitchen in Conant Lodge, the camp’s main building.
What’s behind this solar glow-up? A push by AMC to live by the organization’s values, cut fossil fuel use, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. AMC is working towards Net-Zero emissions by 2050.
Getting Up to Speed
Zealand Falls Hut sits on the edge of a waterfall. And since 1981, the hut has gotten much of its electricity from a hydroelectric generator powered by its namesake.
While innovative at the time, the generator grew inefficient. Water often clogged in the generator’s tubing and hut Croo members would have to climb around in the Zealand River to fix it. The process was nicknamed “burping” because of the gurgling sound water would make as it started flowing again.
The hydroelectric system also required excess resources from the construction crew, especially compared to the solar arrays at other huts.
“We were going up [at Zealand Falls] quite often to check everything. It took a lot of maintenance. The solar panels are pretty maintenance-free. They just sit there and provide us with lots of power,” says AMC Construction Manager Beau Etter-Garrette.
According to Etter-Garrette, the construction crew and hut leadership had their eye on installing new panels at Zealand Falls for years. The greatest initial hurdle was determining exactly where the panels would go. Solar panels ideally face south for maximum impact. The Zealand Falls roof does not. As a workaround, the team decided on a ground-mount solar array, which required a biological study for rare and fragile plants. Once satisfied that the project wouldn’t have a detrimental ecological impact, AMC took the proposal to the White Mountain National Forest, which must sign off on alterations to the huts as part of AMC’s special use permit.
Construction on the new solar arrays was approved by the Forest Service in 2022 and added to the 2023 schedule.
Sustainable Construction 101
From groundbreaking solar initiatives to routine roofing work, most construction projects at AMC start through the same process.
Capital budget resources are the funds set aside each year for AMC construction, facility improvements, and acquisitions. Proposals for how to use these funds come from facility managers and leadership, then are ranked by immediate need, importance, and cost.
“The solar panels are pretty maintenance-free. They just sit there and provide us with lots of power.”
Once Etter-Garrette and his team get the capital list at the beginning of each year, they’ll begin on the logistics for each project, including timeline, staffing, and materials. The Zealand Falls solar installation was led by Construction Crew Tech Dave Evankow.
Advanced planning may be common in the construction world, but most contractors don’t work in the backcountry, on a long-term special use permit with a National Forest, and with the sustainability standards of the AMC Construction Crew. Etter-Garrette takes pride in the way his crew navigates these unique challenges while minimizing their environmental footprint.
Construction crews work in tight teams that keep waste low. Most construction materials for the Huts, for example, must be helicoptered up, limiting excess materials. Etter-Garrette recalls one occasion where an outside electrician was shocked to see AMC crew members saving small amounts of copper wiring for future use.
“That level of recycling doesn’t exist in the contractor world, but to us it’s important.”
The Path to Net Zero
Sustainable construction practices and investing in renewable energy sources like solar sit at the center of AMC’s push for Net Zero. As part of its Net Zero Strategic Plan, AMC unveiled a Carbon Mitigation Hierarchy. The three-pronged approach includes:
- Avoiding and reducing emissions from transportation and buildings: This includes transitioning building heating and other energy needs from fossil fuels to electricity and investing in electric car infrastructure.
- Eliminating emissions from electricity: Ensure that all of the electricity used is powered by clean, renewable sources of energy, like solar panels.
- Offset any remaining emissions: AMC developed three verified forest carbon projects on its Maine Woods Initiative lands to balance emissions that cannot be reduced or eliminated. While offsets are an important tool, they will not be a reason to avoid the necessary investments in other forms of emission reductions.
Etter-Garrette says that the future capital projects list is filled with Net Zero initiatives. AMC is planning an energy audit of the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and Joe Dodge Lodge to understand what it’ll take to go fully electric. Additional electric vehicle charging stations may also be on their way. And the construction crew has more solar installations on the agenda.
Challenges remain. While electricity is coming from cleaner sources, overall electricity use at facilities is up. Something Etter-Garrette focuses on is encouraging staff to think about how to utilize solar panels when charging cell phones, tablets, and smartwatches.
“If it’s a bright sunny day, plug in everything you can, because we’re producing more power than you’re using. Just don’t do that on a cloudy day because your batteries are gonna go down and you’ll have to run your generator.”
Even with the increased demand, electricity use at the huts is relatively low. At their busiest, the average hut uses about two kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. The average American household uses more than ten times that amount.
From big-time solar construction to staff-driven efforts to cut electricity use, AMC is pushing ahead on the path to Net Zero. What will next summer bring?