Business: Heating Up the Airwaves

A radio station in the Southwest uses solar power to rock out

By Ross Burns

Illustration by Lauren Berke

Perched atop new mexico’s 10,800-foot Picuris Peak are 160 solar panels. Contrary to what you might expect, they don’t crown an isolated home or even a ranger station—they power the transmitter of the world’s largest solar-powered radio station, KTAO.

The transmitter beams news, community affairs, and rock music across a nearly 100-mile radius around Taos, where the station’s office is located. KTAO’s transmitter hasn’t always been located on a mountaintop, or run on renewable energy. Until 1991, the station broadcast to a much smaller area from a trailer just outside Taos. When the FCC granted the station permission to increase its strength, the only suitable site for the necessary transmitter—the peak—had no power.

 “I knew it would take years to run power up the mountain. Solar was the only way we could do it,” says KTAO owner and deejay Brad Hockmeyer, who says the station saves thousands of dollars each month on utility bills. “I’ve been preaching its benefits ever since.”

Only a handful of other stations in the US run on renewable energy. One of them, KZMU in Moab, Utah, purchases enough wind credits from Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky Program to meet all its energy needs, and the station plans to go mostly solar when it receives $60,000 in seed money from the program. Blue Sky director Christy Williams is optimistic other stations will do the same. “Offsets are an easy way to get started, and I’m sure the smaller, grassroots stations that have more creative latitude will be coming along quickly,” she says.

Back on Picuris Peak, KTAO’s transmitter site is completely off the grid; it uses solar power for both electricity and heat. Fifteen miles away in Taos, the KTAO Solar Center, which houses the station’s offices, studios, and outdoor performance venue, will also be powered entirely by solar energy. The funding for the project comes from an $800 million IRS bond to pursue alternative energy sources. Installation of the more than 100 panels that will line the perimeter of the station will begin once the government releases the funds.
KTAO takes its music seriously, as well as its responsibility to inform and connect the community with local government, businesses, and organizations. The new panels will allow the station to fulfill its duties on a day-to-day basis, but also in emergency situations.

"We’re designated as a first responder, so if you-know-what hits the fan, we can still get important information out to the community,” says Hockmeyer.

Issue 25

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