Skiing would appear to be the ultimate off-the-grid activity. Drive to up a base high up in the mountains, ride a gondola to the top of the mountain, far above the tree lines, and ski the pristine powder in the back bowls. There is little use for artificial propulsion other than the energy that moves the lifts to the top, or that heats the hot cocoa in the lodge. Generally, gravity does the heavy lifting.
Power generation and production is not the sort of activity one usually associates with skiing. For aesthetic reasons, ski resort operators try to limit the noise and infrastructure associated with producing power. Skiers would much rather listen to the sound of snow gently falling and their skis carving arcs on the slopes than to the chugging of a generator.
Which is one of the reasons a few forward-looking ski resort owners are producing power in what may seem to be a highly counterintuitive way—through solar panels. Put another way, they are using sun to make snow and ice.
The Mount Abram Ski Resort in Greenwood, Maine, about 65 miles northwest of Portland, on the edge of the Green Mountain Forest, has set aside about an acre in the parking lot at the base and planted 803 panels arrayed in six rows. Together, they can turn sun rays and ambient light into a number of electrons sufficient to provide 70 percent of the resort’s use. And the main power consumers are snowmaking machines, which are vital for resorts in the New England, where natural snow can’t always be relied upon in the early part of the season. It’s part of a larger effort to make the resort more green, to use less diesel fuel and propane to heat buildings and power snowmobiles. The resort has also installed electric car chargers.
Berkshire East ski resort near the Vermont border, which has 44 trails, has taken this power-production drive a step further. In 2013, it inaugurated what is effectively its own renewable power plant, which produces 1.4 megawatts of capacity when operating at full-tilt. Berkshire East proudly proclaims it as “the first ski area in the world to generate 100% of our power from onsite renewable energy.” The resort has taken a two-pronged approach. First, there’s a giant, 277-foot-tall wind turbine, whose three blades have a 900-kilowatt capacity. Then, on a ten-acre field the resort has planted about 1800 panels, combined with trackers that rotate and follow the sun as it courses through the sky. It has a capacity of 500 kilowatts.
The family-run company cites two reasons for undertaking this effort. First, there’s Karma. When looking to the future, many organizations see emissions-free energy as a kind of insurance against global warming and a way of dealing with climate change. “Consider the solar and wind turbines our attempt at increasing distributed renewable generation so that the next generation of skiers can enjoy winter the same way we do,” Berkshire East notes. Second, growing your own power is an insurance policy against volatility. Ski resorts are a business, and one that can be quite fickle—a bad snow season means poor revenues. But they have high fixed costs—overhead, maintenance, staff, and power. Increasingly, as these industries develop, on-site solar and wind is a way of guaranteeing a lower price for electricity. “We cannot trust the price of power to remain stable, so by producing our own power, we have hedged ourselves against future price increases,” the company notes.
There’s more out there—and likely more to come. The Aspen Skiing Company, which operates the legendary Aspen and Snowmass resorts in Colorado, has installed small solar arrays at an employee housing complex, a hotel, and at ski patrol headquarters.
And in Switzerland, where Alpine skiing originated, resort operators in the tiny resort of Tenna have built a solar-powered ski lift. Faced with a lack of flat, open land, they took an innovative approach. In essence, they placed a bunch of solar panels in the form of a suspension bridge on top of the lift. As the panels rotate to track the sun, they produce more than enough power to move skiiers up the mountain. And in the summer, when the lift is idle, it feeds juice into the local community.