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Solar, Wind, Geothermal Power
on Display at Spa Hot Springs 

PV arrays satisfy some of the electric power needs at Spa Hot Springs Motel in White Sulphur Springs. (Spa Hot Springs photo)As much as he can, Gene Gudmundson takes advantage of  solar, wind and geothermal energy at Spa Hot Springs Motel in White Sulphur Springs.

"We utilize all alternative energy sources available to us," Gudmundson says. "We believe in thinking globally and acting locally. We use our natural resources to provide your comfort, but we do it in a way that is not harmful to the environment. We strive to be a model of clean energy consumption and better business for the future."

That philosophy led Gudmundson to install a wind turbine and solar electric panels last December to meet some of his electricity needs.

A Whisper 175 wind turbine quietly turns White Sulphur Springs breezes into electricity at Spa Hot Springs.The Whisper 175 wind turbine sits atop a 44-foot tower. The 3000-watt rated turbine delivers in excess of 500 kilowatt hours per month in a 12 mph wind. The Southwest Windpower machine has a 14-foot rotor diameter and features a handmade fiberglass and foam core blade for smooth, high-efficiency operation and low-wind start-up. It also incorporates a patented "angle governor" design for quiet operation in high winds. It has a peak power rating of 3200 watts at 27 mph.

According to Gudmundson, "the only sound you'll hear is when the wind is really pounding on it … and then only if you stand next to it."

The tower and turbine, installed by Sunelco of Hamilton, Montana, stand 100 feet or so from the spa and motel.

"You can hear it sometimes at night, but it's not an unpleasant sound," says Gudmundson "The only comments we've had from motel guests have all been positive."

Gudmundson’s 16-panel solar electric system, also installed in December by Sunelco, includes two Kyocera 120-watt solar modules that produce 7.1 amps at 16.9 volts. Both arrays are mounted on Zomeworks racks that track the sun.

"It is kind of neat to watch the thing move and follow the sun," Gudmundson says.

The wind and solar systems are net metered, which allows them to feed excess electricity back into the utility grid. The two systems provide about a quarter of the Spa’s electric power needs. 

"We’ve got a very large electric load," Gudmundson says. The load includes lighting and appliances for a 21-room motel, pools and dressing rooms and Gudmundson’s Hot Springs Natural Health Clinic and chiropractic office, which serves clients from all over.

At current rates of 6-7 cents a kilowatt hour, electric bills for the facility run between $600-$1,000 per month.

Gene Gudmundson built a special room to house batteries to store power, even though his system is net metered.A bank of 12 batteries provides a backup system if the Spa loses power, which would be more than a mere inconvenience. If the power fails, and the pump stops working in the well, water builds up and flows onto the ground.

"Muddy water will flow back and foul our well," explains Gudmundson. "Now with a backup system, if the power goes – whether for a half hour or two hours – the battery system will circumvent that whole problem."

While the Spa uses the sun and wind to help generate electricity, it relies on hot water from geothermal wells to provide heat … and, of course, to replenish the Spa’s pools, which are known worldwide for their ideal mineral content and soothing properties. The chemistry of the waters has frequently been praised and often compared to Baden-Baden, the famous spa in Germany.

The healing waters of Spa Hot Springs in the Smith Valley in Central Montana attract visitors from across the state. (Spa Hot Springs photo)"We like to say that the waters of Baden-Baden are almost, but not quite, as good as these," says Gudmundson.

Water flows from the ground at the Spa at 130 degrees. Gudmundson uses a system of heat exchangers to heat the rooms and domestic water. The system delivers water to the pool at 120 degrees.

With wind and solar added in, Gudmundson estimates that the Spa produces more than half of its energy using renewable resources.

"We're certainly one of a kind when we combine geothermal, solar and wind in a commercial facility like this," he says. "I'm certain nobody else does that, at least not to this degree."

To help finance the system, Gudmundson received a grant from the universal system benefits fund administered by Montana Power Company and paid for by all the utility’s customers. The grant covered about a quarter of the total project cost of $40,000.

Despite a few glitches and delays in getting the system running, Gudmundson says he’s pleased with the results.

"The pool ties in with the clinic, which ties in with the alternative energy stuff," he says. "It's all natural, healthy and non-polluting. They all tie in. They all complement one another."

Gudmundson says he’s often asked why he chose to produce his own power since he’s already drawing electricity from the utility at a relatively inexpensive rate.

Spa Hot Springs"Is it economical? Do you mean within the first year or two? No," he says. "But I think it is economical in the long term because it is going to save electricity here this year, next year and the year after that." And, he adds, "Personally I like the aesthetics of it."

He likes the looks and other benefits so well, in fact, that he’s already making plans to install additional solar panels and possibly another wind turbine.

"Our goal is to be completely self-sufficient with solar, wind and geothermal," he says. "And obviously as electricity prices go up, the payback becomes less."

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