Solar-Powered Ski Resorts: Adapting to Changing Winters
In a world with increasingly mild winters, how are ski resorts continuing to provide a full season of snow?
With the Winter Olympics in Beijing just around the corner, winter sports have been top of mind. Living in the South, I have very limited access to winter sports like snowboarding and skiing — except for a few resorts with artificial snow. This got me thinking: How would a ski resort in Alabama maintain a snowy hill throughout an entire winter? In a world with increasingly mild winters, how might ski resorts continue to provide a full season of snow? Or, how might winter sports as a whole adapt to milder winters?
Is Climate Change Threatening Winter Sports?
We’ve seen how climate change affects summer sports: heat waves and forest fires can cause heat stress and endanger air quality for athletes and fans alike. The World Economic Forum reports that heat stress from climate change will cause 38,000 extra deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.
But what about the winter? Data shows us that climate change will worsen extreme weather patterns, actually increasing precipitation. But the key here is that on average, winters are getting shorter and milder, meaning we receive more rain and less snow. The New York Times reports that “by midcentury, nine former Winter Olympics sites may not be reliably cold enough to host the games.” Whether for the Olympics or winter recreation, the reality is that we’ll likely see winter sports seasons shorten.
Artificial snow machines, also known as snow cannons, can help supplement a shorter season of snowfall, but even those machines have their shortcomings. The technology behind snow machines requires pumping water through small nozzles under high pressure. When the water hits cold air it freezes almost instantly and turns into ice crystals resembling snow. These machines require a lot of power — and even more water. Hardly a long-term solution.
How Are Resorts Using Solar?
As a solar geek, I had to think about how solar energy could be incorporated into our wintertime activities. We know that solar panels are actually slightly more effective in the cold than the heat; they’re also more efficient at higher elevations (at high altitudes in mountainous areas, as the slope increases, we get more irradiation and less diffusion, increasing efficiency). Sounds like the perfect recipe for some solar-powered ski resorts.
We were happy to find a number of proactive resorts that have turned toward the sun to help power their operations, cut their costs and offset the emissions that are shortening winters in the first place. The results have been encouraging.
Solar-Powered Ski Lift
A ski resort in Safien Valley, Switzerland, created the world’s first solar-powered ski lift by installing solar panels along its cables. The lift produces a whopping 90,000 kWh per year, only 22,000 of which is used to power the lift itself. That leaves 68,000 kWh of renewably generated excess electricity, the equivalent of offsetting over 50,000 pounds of burned coal. The resort sells this electricity back to its power company (through a Swiss policy similar to net metering in the U.S.), adding to the country’s clean energy production.
In response to how climate change is impacting the winter in the Northeastern U.S., Vermont’s Bromley Mountain Ski resort completed a 615-kW solar project. The new project will harness clean, locally generated solar power to help Bromley reach its sustainability goals. The mountain solar farm is projected to generate enough electricity to power 70 average households per year and offset the emissions of 120 passenger vehicles annually. What’s more, Bromley Mountain continued to create new energy-saving methods for its snowmaking machines, upgrading them with new motors to increase efficiency.
Bromley Mountain Resort isn’t the only ski resort taking advantage of the sunshine up in the mountains. In Colorado — a state that enjoys nearly 300 sunny days per year (and is one of the best states for solar incentives) — Aspen Ski Company (ASC) has installed a 147-kW solar array. Though this isn’t quite enough to power the entire resort, ASC exemplifies how sustainability strategies are evolving along with lowered costs of solar, solar tax credits and growing awareness around a changing climate.
Wolf Creek ski area in Colorado has also followed suit, working with the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative (SLVREC) and Renewable Energy Solutions (RES) to install an enormous 2.75 MW (2,750 kW!) solar farm in the sunny San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado.
Teamwork makes the dream work, and the project was uniquely co-sponsored by both public and private interests. It serves as a good example of community solar and its benefits. San Luis Valley Electric Cooperative needed more renewably generated energy to meet its growing clean energy standards in progressive Colorado. Wolf Creek, an environmentally conscious privately owned organization, likely wouldn’t have the capital to build a 2.75-MW solar farm covering 25 acres on its own.
SLVREC purchased the 25 acres and signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) with RES to provide and install the panels. Wolf Creek resort now pays SLVREC for a portion of the energy produced by the farm.
With cooperation from both public and private interests, San Luis Valley Electric has greatly offset its carbon footprint, and Wolf Creek resort now runs on nearly 100% renewable energy.
How Will Sports Adapt to Climate Change?
Ski resorts may be one of the first sporting industries to feel the effects of climate change — shorter, milder winters cut the ski season short and require heightened energy needs to manufacture artificial snow. More and more ski resorts are turning to solar power to meet their shifting energy needs and do what they can to fight climate change and keep winters white.
But what about the rest of the sporting industry? Will outdoor summer sports like baseball, soccer or tennis move entirely indoors to protect athletes from extreme heat and dangerous air quality in certain cities? Climate control within these enormous facilities will require enormous amounts of energy.
Will traditional summer events like the Tour de France move to spring or fall in order to avoid scorching temperatures? Is it possible for winter events to move indoors the way ice hockey has?
No matter the direction you see sports heading, it’s becoming clear that the industry will only require more energy from clean sources. We hope that these solar-powered ski resorts will demonstrate the many benefits of solar panels and lead the charge in adapting to a changing world.
Karsten Neumeister is a solar energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the renewable energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on solar energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.