These solar panels are spinning chairlifts at Squaw Valley. PHOTO: Courtesy of Liberty Utilities

If your ski area is not talking to its utility company about renewable energy--it should.

Aspen Skiing Company has been in the business of clean energy since 2004 and generates 24 million kilowatt hours, annually, of clean, renewable energy--from utilities they own. That's enough to power 2,400 homes and all four mountains in the ski resort. Small ski areas are in the renewable energy business, too. Mount Abram Ski Area in Maine has 800 solar panels installed in their parking lot. Mount Ashland Ski Area in Southern Oregon generates 25,000 kilowatt hours of energy from rooftop solar panels installed on the garage for their snowcats. Last summer, Vail Resorts said they'd be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. And last week, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows announced plans to hook up to 100 percent renewable energy by as early as December--an aggressive deadline that depends on their utility company, Liberty, building enough solar and renewable energy projects to cover the 75 percent of Squaw’s energy currently fueled by natural gas in the next 10 months.

So why are ski resorts getting in the energy business?

"If they want to be able to survive as a ski resort, maintain the levels of snow that are critical, we have to get off of fossil fuels," says Marta Stoepker, who works on the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "They [ski resorts] have a vested interest in this."

Secondly, it's cost effective. Solar and wind power are fast becoming the cheapest sources of electricity around.

Ski resorts also have a lot of buying power. They are often the biggest customers in a utility company's portfolio. And utility companies are listening to customer demand.

"It's absolutely critical that ski resorts are talking to utilities," says Stoepker. "Ski resorts are a huge economic driver in the community. They're also a big customer for utilities. Squaw Valley is a big customer for Liberty Utilities, and because they said, 'We want to go in this direction,' Liberty has to go where their customer wants to go."

Squaw Valley has been working with the Sierra Club and negotiating with their utility company for the last six years to clear a path to 100 percent. They are currently powered by 75 percent natural gas and 25 percent solar--soon to be 30 percent with a new solar plant that Liberty just got approval to build. "The remaining 70 percent will be offset by new solar or other renewable projects built in our region as quickly as we can get them approved and built," says Jennifer Cross, the spokesperson for Liberty Utilities. Squaw Valley says these resources could be a part of their grid by as early as December 2018. "We're talking real, new capacity. Not RECs," says Cross.

The other cool part to Squaw Valley's initiative has to do with batteries.

“Not every locale is environmentally suitable or financially feasible for several megawatts on-site,” says Carl Kish, the co-founder of STOKE Certified, which helps ski areas become more sustainable in every sense of the word.

Tesla, which launched a rocket last week, has been building batteries for just this purpose--to back-up and store renewable energy--just down the hill from Squaw Valley, at their Gigafactory 15 miles outside of Reno. “That's where Tesla's battery storage comes in for Squaw,” Kish says. “The clean backup power lowers the risk of using fossil fuel-based sources during high demand periods on the grid (e.g., when people get home from work), during blackouts (when Squaw used to use diesel generators), or when renewables are not producing (e.g., solar at night).”

Tesla's batteries--the 2170 cell--will be installed close to Squaw Valley's mid-mountain Gold Coast Lodge, and will back up the solar power from Liberty Utilities.

The biggest contributor to Squaw Valley’s carbon footprint is people driving to the ski area alone, says Squaw CEO Andy Wirth. PHOTO: Courtesy of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

"In our case, you have 44 chairlifts and they have starts and stops and so the consumption of energy--it's very spikey and very volatile and the surge is very substantial," says Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. “The reason why the 2170 cell is really important is because it's a compact power house of new high-tech energy storage.”

Once Squaw Valley gets all of its electricity from renewable sources, their carbon footprint will be cut in half, from 13,078 metric tons of carbon to 6,682 metric tons. The rest of their carbon footprint includes things like diesel in grooming machines, and Wirth says they're also exploring electric snowcats.

"This is a road map for other companies and other NGOs and civic entities to advance on this move to 100 percent renewable now," says Wirth. "To wait till 2030 is abject failure. There's a failure in the message that we're going to have to wait a generation from now, we're already a generation or two behind climate change. In fact, there are some that say we are too late. To them, I say we're still in the fight. We're still going to keep trying, and here's something more than advocacy. This is very real. This is also very affordable. So why wouldn't we take advantage of that?"