Ski Season Snow Turns a Hydroelectric Profit

Ski enthusiasts from around the world travel to Colorado for the slopes offered in the Rocky Mountain Range. Sources of energy are in demand all season, and on Snowmass Mountain there is an underground energy revolution at the bottom of the slopes near Fanny Hill.

Snowmass, Colorado – August 9, 2004 [SolarAccess.com] A pipe system used for snowmaking during the ski season and for channeling water run-off in the spring has a third purpose now that a Pelton-type turbine was installed near the bottom of the system. The turbine will help power a 115 kW micro-hydroelectric plant that will feed power back into the town’s grid when the ski season is over, and give the Aspen Skiing Company (ASC) a 6-cent per kW return on electricity during the summer months. Auden Schendler is the director of environmental services for ASC, and he said the company started looking into the idea of a micro-hydroelectric plant four years ago. It’s more than a way to make some money back, however, it’s a way to ensure the future of an industry that can be threatened by its own practices. “We’re an industry that relies on climate,” Schendler said. “Not just snow, but on a stable climate.” Never mind the car exhaust that floods ski towns during the snow season, to keep a ski resort running means a number of energy dependent tasks are conducted every day. Grooming the trails with trail grooming equipment that runs on diesel fuel, making snow on those days when natural snow fall isn’t enough, powering the ski lift either through electricity or fuel-run generators, lighting the slopes at night for evening ski runs, and providing room and board for the ski bunnies who need a place to warm up after a day in the cold. As electricity replaces some of the engine fuel needs of a ski resort, the draw from the grid increases so the local utility has to crank out the power. Holy Cross Energy (HCE) of Colorado generates most of the local electricity supply at a coal-fired plant. Snow making manager for the Aspen Skiing Company Rob Covington said the ski resort has followed peak hour controls over the past few years, and tourism demands for more snow have increased energy use across the board. ASC has already started to alter their energy use by purchasing wind energy credits from HCE to power some of the ski lifts, and the Snowcats used for trail grooming run off of bio diesel. When the idea of using the run-off from snowmelt for a micro-hydroelectric was put on to Covington’s to-do list, he admits that he was surprised. “It’s the first time I’ve ever even heard the term ‘micro-hydroelectric,'” he said. But the idea didn’t stump him for long. “If alternative power works and is feasible then I think it’s a great thing to do.” Schendler had already taken the lead and ordered the parts and services for the system. A Pelton-type turbine manufactured by Canyon Industries of Washington was retrofitted for the project’s “head”, which is determined using the elevation between the start of the water flow and where the turbine is placed. Friction that slows down the flow as it travels through the pipe system is also taken into account, along with whether the flow is variable or constant. Having a pipe system in place didn’t make the retrofit any easier, according to Canyon President Dan New. Snowmass is one of the smaller commercial projects his company has manufactured, but size doesn’t make it any less powerful. By the time the flow reaches the turbine it is traveling at approximately 100 mph and creating 325 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure. A switch system designed by Bat Electric of California is used to convert power generated by the turbine into electricity that gets fed into the HCE power grid. It took six months to build the turbine, New said. The total project cost was US$ 150,000, according to Schendler, and if the first micro-hydro is successful they are going to look at installing more systems in the Colorado resort area. How effectively the new system will generate power is a test that will have to wait until the spring of 2005. There isn’t any snow melt left to move the turbine this year, Covington said, and the ASC doesn’t want to use water from the area streams or holding ponds to power the system. A successful spring melt could be an inspiration to others, however. ASC Environmental Director Schendler said the most “valuable stuff” to result from this project was the learning process. If it’s possible for the entire ski industry to learn about the benefits of renewable energy, particularly when that industry relies on a healthy natural environment, then the project will have reached its true potential. “This is intended as a prototype for any ski resort,” Schendler said. And he has high hopes that the micro-hydro project will work just fine. “We do have some awesome streams that explode in the spring,” he said. Funding for the Snowmass micro-hydroelectric project was provided in part by Holy Cross Energy. The utility has also started a local renewable energy pool where people can purchase electricity produced by private solar and hydroelectric projects.