How Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are cruising toward renewables

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is switching to 100 percent renewable energy, with battery storage.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is switching to 100 percent renewable energy, with battery storage.

Lake Tahoe’s iconic Squaw Valley ski resort, and its sister resort Alpine Meadows, plan to go 100 percent renewable by the end of this year and get a cleaner, more reliable and resilient grid — all at no added cost.

The California ski resorts’ announcement comes just weeks after another major ski resort operator, Vail Resorts of Colorado, said it hired Schneider Electric unit Renewable Choice Energy to help the company source 100 percent renewable power and reach its goal of zero net emissions by 2030.

By their very nature as weather-dependent businesses, ski resorts may seem obvious candidates for clean energy and low-carbon technologies. But sourcing large amounts of renewable energy can be difficult for mid-size companies, which don’t have the scale or financial resources and capabilities that large corporations have.

Squaw Valley’s utility, Liberty Utilities, will supply the ski resorts with 100 percent solar, wind, hydropower and other renewables, under a special agreement, and the utility plans to buy and install a pack of Tesla batteries on the mountain that will provide backup power to the resorts and to the wider community.

The improvements will allow the resorts to cut their carbon footprint by more than half, to less than 6,000 metric tons a year of carbon dioxide from 14,000 metric tons a year currently, and will provide much-needed electric reliability and resilience at no extra cost. The utility is awaiting state approval for the plans and expects to complete the projects by the end of this year. 

It took more than six years to get to this point, said Andrew Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. The first step was getting off coal. In 2011, Wirth discovered that a chunk of the ski resorts’ power was coming from an old, dirty Nevada coal plant co-owned by Berkshire Hathaway unit NV Energy, the resorts’ former utility.

"We called our utility to say, ‘As your No. 1 private customers, we’re asking that you develop a path to exclude coal in our energy supply," Wirth said. He also complained that the grid serving his property was outdated, unreliable and prone to blackouts and brownouts.

In December 2011, Liberty Utilities, owned by Canada-based Algonquin Power & Utilities, bought the Lake Tahoe utility from NV Energy and agreed to craft a clean-energy plan for Squaw Valley.

"We believe that renewables are where the future is going, from an environmental standpoint and a cost standpoint," said Greg Sorensen, president of Liberty Utilities’ West Region. "We are thrilled that one of our large customers, Squaw Valley, feels the same."

The utility owns a 50-megawatt solar farm in Nevada and plans to build a 10-megawatt solar array near Reno. The solar farms will serve about one-quarter of power used in the Lake Tahoe area, and will serve the ski resorts, along with other renewables the utility will buy for them.

The current plans for the Tesla batteries envision enough capacity to store and be able to provide 40 megawatt-hours of electricity, enough to power Squaw Valley’s ski resorts and 900 homes in Olympic Valley for four to six hours. The batteries will be made at Tesla’s Gigafactory near Reno, just 70 miles away from Squaw Valley.

In addition to providing clean backup power, the batteries will provide reliability and resilience in the event of bad weather, such as high winds, excessive snow fall and heavy rains, which have caused frequent blackouts and brownouts in the last few years.

All these benefits will come at no extra charge, Wirth said.

"It makes as much sense to my CFO as it does to my chief sustainability officer," he added.

 Separately, Squaw Valley plans to install a solar-panel array to provide on-site clean energy. The resort used to buy renewable energy credits to provide carbon-neutral power for special events, such as the World Cup and Ironman competitions. Now, it makes economic sense to simply generate clean power where it’s used, Wirth said.

Liberty Utilities is working with South Lake Tahoe — home of Heavenly Ski Resort — to help the city reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2032. The utility anticipates that other large customers also will want to use more renewable energy, and the company plans to install electric-vehicle charging stations in the Lake Tahoe area for passenger vehicles and buses.