By Kirsten James
The dozens of chairlifts and gondolas at the Squaw Valley ski resort ferry as many as 50,000 skiers an hour up mountainsides, some traversing more than a thousand feet of elevation in about 20 minutes.
Delivering skiers to some of the highest summits in the Lake Tahoe section of the Sierra Nevada mountains, sometimes in blizzards or sub-freezing temperatures and high winds, is not a task Squaw leaves open to failure. It can’t risk a power outage that would stop the chair lifts and leave skiers hanging for any longer than a few seconds.
So, Squaw has backup generators always at the ready. But the current technology of diesel run generators with heavy emissions doesn’t fit very well with Squaw’s environmental mission of “preserving our winters and alpine environment for current and future generations” nor help forward Squaw’s goals to be 100 percent renewably powered.
To solve the conundrum of diesel generators, Squaw and its utility Liberty Utilities Co. recently entered a venture with Tesla Inc. to purchase and install a lithium-ion battery storage system able to store up to 8 megawatts of solar-generated power to be available to cover power outages or peaks in energy demand.
Now Squaw is slaloming along in its race to be 100 percent renewable powered by December, a goal which would make it the first among major U.S. ski resorts.
I visited Squaw Valley on a recent “spring” day. Expecting wild flowers peeking through melting snow, I was met instead with near white-out conditions as snow fell thickly.
The conditions underscored for me what fierce elements Squaw or any ski resort deals with. Its offer of outdoor adventure to skiers and snowboarders is heavily dependent on nature - and subject to the changing whims of nature. Wind, heavy snow - or lack of snow, rain, hail, biting cold temperatures - or overly warm temperatures, and drought all factor into daily operations at a ski resort. It’s clear that Squaw’s operations managers, electricians, mountain maintenance staff, technicians, ski patrols and other employees have learned to be keenly aware and responsive to weather changes and new snow conditions.
They’re also aware of Squaw’s dependence on electricity and its potential role, consequently, in reducing electricity generated emissions. With chair lifts, gondolas, lights, snow-making machines, lodges with hundreds of kitchen appliances and entertainment venues all depending on power, electricity follows just after snow and mountain inclines as essential ingredients for a successful ski resort.
It’s the intersection of those needs, electricity plus snow, that propels Squaw to seek renewable power and operate in ways to minimize its greenhouse gas emissions. The storied ski resort which hosted the 1960 winter Olympics has been an advocate of operations and policies that would help stem climate change so it can assure snow keeps falling and the mountains remain pristine.
“Squaw is working to transition to 100 percent renewable energy because we are focused on opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint as well as lead by example,” said Michael Gross, director of environmental initiatives at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
“It’s achievable because of our strong relations with our forward-thinking utility provider, Liberty Utilities. We told them what we want to accomplish and the immediate timeframe and they delivered.”
Liberty has been deploying solar arrays in addition to working with Squaw on the battery storage system. It hopes to be able to provide renewable power to much of nearby Olympic Village as well as to the ski resort itself. “Our commitment helps us and them: We get to 100 percent renewable and they can start to develop new renewables,” Gross said.
Climate change has become a cause for many in the ski industry, with Squaw among those out front on the issue. The North American and European ski industries have watched the average annual snow fall decline over the years and with it ski days and skiers, according to Protect Our Winters, a ski industry climate action group.
Stopping climate change is so important to Squaw that it is active in state and federal climate mitigation advocacy efforts with Ceres and others. It even offers its skiers the use of “advocacy phone booths” around its Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts so skiers can call their legislators and Congressional representatives to voice concern about climate change and support policies that would stem greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that this favorite pastime doesn’t become a thing of the past.
As Squaw and Liberty Utilities work towards transitioning the resort to100 percent renewable power by year-end, Squaw executives say they are certain that the whole of California can do the same by 2045.
When I met with Gross and CEO Andy Wirth, who has since retired, they talked about Squaw’s whole-hearted support of the California Senate Bill 100, also known as the “100 Percent Clean Energy Act,” which would accelerate the state’s renewable Portfolio Standard to 60 percent by 2030 and set a goal for the state to receive 100 percent of its electricity from carbon free sources by 2045.
The bill was introduced into both the Senate and the Assembly last year, the first year of a two-year session, and is expected to be taken to a vote between now and September.
SB 100 has many proponents, including 28 major companies and 20 institutional investors that joined Ceres in submitting letters to the state legislature expressing support for passage of the bill. Along with key businesses, other proponents are environmentalists, faith groups, universities, individuals, many non-profit organizations and California Governor Jerry Brown.
Squaw has taken up advocating for policies that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions because ski resorts consider climate change the bane of their existence. For the past two years, exceptionally dry winter months early in the season were followed by bouts of extremely heavy snow. Both those conditions cause challenges to ski resorts. And proceeding those years were drought plagued years of too little snow to provide decent ski seasons. Squaw has snow making machines so it survives and even prospers in dry years. But small ski resorts need to close their doors when it doesn’t snow. That means financial hardship and job losses. And for skiers it meant little chance to engage in a beloved sport.
As U.S. Olympic Nordic skier Jessie Diggins implored the world during the 2018 winter Olympics to save winters and save snow by fighting climate change.
The Protect Our Winters campaign calculates that more than 20 million people went skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling in the winter of 2015-2016 adding about $20.3 billion in economic value to the U.S. economy by spending at ski resorts, hotels, restaurants and travel. On low snow years, fewer people ski and snowboard, reducing that spending and its ripple effects by about $1 billion and resulting in 17,400 fewer jobs, according to Protect Our Winters.
Gross said that after Squaw reaches its goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable power, it intends to help the rest of Tahoe go after that goal, starting with the North Tahoe community.
“Our hope is that other businesses will work with their utility providers to push for more renewables opportunities. Private industry needs to support the renewables efforts; we can’t wait for our elected officials to make it happen,” he said.
Waiting for elected officials to lead this transition might make it too late for any hope to preserve the amounts of snow fall that skiing needs and skiers want.
Kirsten James is Director of California Policy, Ceres
Photo: Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows