Swiss town builds solar-powered ski lift

The wing-like solar panels on the T-bar in Tenna, Switzerland. Courtesy of Tenna

Tenna may be one of the smallest towns in Switzerland, but its new solar-powered T-bar has recently put the tiny village on the global map. After two years of extensive planning and building, the town of Tenna opened one of the world's first solar-powered ski lifts in December.

With a mere 112 inhabitants, Tenna is an agricultural village that relies only on solar and hydroelectricity for energy. In the past two years, the number of solar panels in the town has more than doubled, occupying almost every rooftop and cow barn around. So, when it came time to restore the town's old ski lift, solar power made the most sense.

Felicia Montalta, project manager of tourism development in the Salfien valley, first thought of the idea three years ago as a way to draw more attention to the rural areas of the country. The amount and strength of Tenna's sun combined with the 5,928-foot altitude made it the ideal location for the first solar lift of its kind.

The lift, which they began building in December 2009 and started operating on Dec. 17, 2011, extends 1,640 feet up the mountain and is expected to produce more than 90,000 kilowatts per year. On sunny days, the lift produces more energy than it consumes, according to Montalta. Clean energy, however, isn't cheap; it cost about $1.5 million to build the green endeavor. Tenna will be able to use the stored energy for other means and is hoping the lift brings more skiers and tourists to the region.

"Our project is a push for others to realize similar ecological innovations," Montalta told ESPN. "We hope that our ski-lift is motivation for the whole valley -- and the whole world -- to think about how we can do things in a more ecologically friendly way."

Though several other solar-powered ski resorts are around the world, Tenna claims to be the first with a solar-wing system, where the panels rest on top of the ski lift.

Colorado's Aspen/Snowmass was the first U.S. ski resort to build a solar panel to generate power for the resort. Though a strong proponent of clean energy, Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Company's VP of Sustainability, is slightly skeptical of the Swiss solar-lift invention.

"It's inspirational, and it's fun, but could you have done twice as much elsewhere for the same price and effort?" Schendler said, adding that he believes ski resorts will be moving toward bigger clean energy projects in the future, along the lines of wind turbines like those at Massachusetts' Jiminy Peak and British Columbia's Grouse Mountain. "It's not as sexy, but this is the kind of calculus we as a society need to engage in if we hope to solve climate change."