GREENWOOD — Can a ski area be green and white at the same time?
The Mt. Abram Ski Area is betting its future on that assumption.
Its conviction will be on display for visitors this winter, as they drive past 803 solar-electric panels that cover roughly an acre of the parking lot. The panels are expected to generate enough kilowatt hours over the year to power 46 average Maine homes and offset 70 percent of the ski area’s electricity use. Much of that power will pay for snowmaking.
The output will make Mt. Abram the second ski area in the country, behind solar-and-wind powered Berkshire East in Massachusetts, to get so much of its electricity from renewable sources.
Aside from stabilizing energy costs, the solar investment also ties in with an attempt to brand Mt. Abram in a competitive market as a “sustainable mountain playground.” It heats the lodge with wood pellets. It was the second ski area in North America to install electric vehicle chargers. It offers “Carload Friday,” a carpooling incentive that gets everyone in the vehicle on the mountain for $79. These and other green measures may appeal to winter outdoor enthusiasts, who care about the environment and worry about climate change, the mountain’s management believes.
“We think this demographic is most likely to shop with their dollars,” said Matt Hancock, a co-owner. “We’re going to find out.”
More snow, better profits.
Downhill skiing is an energy-intensive business. At Mt. Abram, electricity, diesel fuel and propane account for up to a quarter of the mountain’s million-dollar budget.
And the demands on snowmaking could intensify over time, with the need to make snow more often and at higher temperatures, as the climate warms. So ski areas are searching for ways to firm up their energy costs. For Mt. Abram, the solar project is part of a broad plan to meet the challenge with local and renewable resources.
The solar project cost $940,000 and was funded in part with a 25 percent matching grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program. The power output and available tax credits are expected to pay back the investment within five years. A public ceremony and tour is set for Nov. 6.
The solar project is on track to start generating electricity this ski season. The timing is important. Opening plenty of well-groomed trails, especially during Christmas vacation, has become do-or-die for attracting skiers and boarders. But natural snow can be skimpy early in the season, and making snow uses lots of energy. Mt. Abram is betting that solar electricity, coupled with a new era of frugal snow guns and water pumps, will insulate it from future spikes in power prices. At the same time, it can make more snow than ever before.
In effect, even black-diamond skiers will be barreling down a green trail.
With cold weather and snow in the forecast this weekend, that moment of truth is fast approaching, and progress was evident during a visit earlier this week.
When the ski lodge burned to the ground three years ago, Hancock used the crisis to make a switch. He decided to heat the temporary replacement building with wood pellets. Two boilers from Maine Energy Systems in neighboring Bethel now burn 35 tons of locally-sourced fuel. The system displaced an oil unit that guzzled more than 3,000 gallons a winter. The conversion won Mt. Abram a top environmental award in 2012 from the National Ski Areas Association.
Nearby, workers are closing in a new water-pumping building, part of a $300,000 project to upgrade snowmaking capacity. Variable-speed motors on the pumps will quadruple water pumping. Coupled with high-efficiency snow guns, the mountain can make four times as much snow, at a fraction of the cost for diesel fuel and electricity.
Two electric-vehicle charging stations stand ready for use. Hancock owns a Nissan Leaf, but it will be a while before there’s a queue of electric and hybrid-electric cars waiting to top off. Still, the charging station highway sign at the turnoff on Route 26 sends a message about Mt. Abram.
That message will be hard to ignore for guests who drive past six rows of solar panels that fill two-thirds the space of a football field. Talmage Solar Engineering in Arundel is finishing work on the meter interface with Central Maine Power, where electricity is fed into the grid on sunny days and sent back as needed. In the lodge, a sample solar panel and graphic display will give guests a primer in how the system works. Real-time performance will be shown on the area’s Web site.
The efforts at Mt. Abram are being carried out, to varying degrees, at ski areas across the country.
Three-quarters of member areas have some sort of sustainability program, the industry trade group reports. A growing number – although none so far in Maine – are participating in the group’s Sustainable Slopes Climate Challenge. The program aims to reduce carbon emissions through renewable energy, snowmaking efficiency, recycling and other steps. A first-ever economic analysis found ski areas in the Northeast could boost profits by 12 percent after five years, with comprehensive sustainability programs.
At Sunday River in Newry, the resort is spending $1.1 million on 172 new snow guns and variable speed motors for water pumping. They use only a quarter of the energy to make compressed air as the ones they replaced – a big deal at an area with 1,900 snow guns.
“On a 26-degree day, with these new guns and (variable drives), Sunday River can make the same quantity of snow at half the power as before, and in one-third the time,” said resort spokesperson Sarah Devlin.
Shawnee Peak in Bridgton has cut its snowmaking costs in half over the past 10 years, according to Chet Homer, the owner. The technology keeps getting better, he said, with guns that run on lower air pressure. He’s testing guns this winter that use 50 cubic-feet-per-minute of air, compared to old models that needed 400 cfm.
“The windows for making snow are getting smaller,” Homer said. “So when you have that window, you have to make as much snow as you can. If you have a warm December, everyone is scrambling to get open for Christmas.”
All the attention to low-energy snowmaking may seem irrelevant off the mountain, but the economic health of ski areas affects communities miles away.
Maine’s 18 downhill ski areas average 1.3 million visits each winter, according to the Ski Maine Association. Visitors spend $300 million, not just on the mountain, but at gas stations, restaurants and motels. This cash infusion is a timely counterpoint to the state’s dominant summer tourism season.
Ski areas have become increasingly important in the western mountains, where many wood manufacturing plants have shut down in recent years. Sunday River, for instance, expects to employ 1,250 full- and part-time workers this winter.
In Greenwood, the 120 winter jobs at Mt. Abram represent the only sizable business in town. Several workers drive from as far away as Rumford and South Paris.
Greenwood lost its manufacturing base when the iconic Saunders Brothers dowel mill closed last spring, after a failed attempt to revive it. Now the town is doing some soul-searching. Residents are contemplating a tax-increment financing district that would include Mt. Abram. Maybe the ski area could anchor a sustainability corridor of recreational businesses linked to the lakes, mountains and other natural attractions.
“We’d like them to be on the green side,” Kimberly Sparks, the town manager, said of potential new employers. “We always chuckle about being green in Greenwood.”