Squaw Goes Green

Former head of Squaw Valley leaves behind a mission to be the first ski resort in the country fully powered by renewable energy.

Back Longreads May 15, 2018 By Torey Van Oot

Andy Wirth was just a few years into his job at the helm of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings when he fielded a complaint from a customer that had nothing to do with snow quality or ticket prices. The customer wanted to know if Wirth was aware that the company was using power sourced from coal to fuel the ski lifts and keep the lodge lights on.

Wirth, a longtime environmentalist, couldn’t believe it. But he did some digging and learned that not only was Squaw’s power fueled primarily by coal, but that the coal was coming from a Nevada plant notorious for polluting the air.

“We were stunned,” Wirth recalls. “It was a remarkably less-than-ideal circumstance.”

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Related: California Ski Industry Association president on environmental stewardship

The realization triggered a call to Liberty Utilities, the Lake Tahoe resort’s energy provider. But it also sparked a years-long quest to improve sustainability and lower the company’s carbon footprint at a rapid clip. That effort is expected to peak later this year, as Squaw climbs closer to its goal of relying on 100 percent renewable energy as soon as the end of 2018.

Wirth won’t be around to see Squaw meet that goal; he retired in mid-April after eight years serving as president and other top executive roles. But the sustainability mission he put in motion, which includes some of the most sweeping and aggressive efforts the ski industry has seen, is full steam ahead. The company’s plan, conducted in close partnership with Liberty Utilities, is an ambitious one that could put the resort decades ahead of its peers and California state-mandated standards.

Some see the development as essential for bolstering business and ensuring long-term survival of the ski industry as a whole. But beyond that, Squaw’s efforts are helping drive an even bigger shift in the energy market that could shape the future of our planet.

“It’s not good enough to say we’re going to target 2025 or 2030. We don’t have time to wait another generation,” Wirth says. “ We have to get this done now.”

RESORTS GO GREEN

Squaw isn’t the only resort prioritizing green policies. Colorado-based Vail Resorts’ Epic Promise campaign is pouring millions into conservation efforts and setting goals to reduce overall energy consumption by 10 percent across its properties, which include Kirkwood, Heavenly and Northstar in Tahoe. Killington in Vermont is turning to cow manure to keep lifts moving as part of its commitment to offset electricity use with the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits. Tahoe’s Boreal Mountain and Soda Springs resorts are taking a similar approach with these credits, as well as launching programs to make snow with recycled water and power lifts with solar panels.

“The Squaw-Liberty partnership is a big deal. Squaw has really pushed on Liberty to create clean energy and it is clearly working.” Michael Reitzell, president, California Ski Industry Association

Squaw, meanwhile, has been pioneering environmentally-forward initiatives for years, rolling out features ranging from electric car charging stations to a resort-wide ban on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles. But this partnership goes beyond those efforts.

“The Squaw-Liberty partnership is a big deal. Squaw has really pushed on Liberty to create clean energy and it is clearly working,” says Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “Squaw Alpine has been a champion for renewable initiatives, and it is very impressive that they have committed to renewable energy so quickly.”

Squaw hasn’t set a hard deadline for hitting 100 percent renewables — it’s careful to word the pledge as reaching the mark as soon as the end of 2018 — but succeeding in the goal would make it the first resort in the nation to run entirely on renewables and put it ahead of current California regulations, which call for energy portfolios to be fueled by 50 percent renewables by 2030.

But even if Squaw doesn’t make the cut, the pronouncement could be good for business. Consumers increasingly see businesses that promote green initiatives as socially responsible and high-quality, according to Dr. Andrey Mikhailitchenko, director of the Center for Small Business at Sacramento State.

“It becomes a fashionable addition to their brand image,” says Mikhailitchenko, who is also an associate professor of business. “If you’re declaring that you’re moving in this direction, you’re generating a better reputation among customers and better sales.”

Still, Squaw appears to be better positioned than most to glide toward such an ambitious goal. And the reason why is something of a lesson in business and consumer dynamics. It turned out the coal Wirth was disappointed to discover in the company’s energy portfolio was there because of a multi-year power purchasing agreement with another utility called NV Energy that included energy sourced from coal-fired plants.

With an annual electricity bill of about $3 million, Squaw is Liberty’s largest private customer in the region. When Wirth called about the issue, the utility listened. But he wasn’t the only one asking for more clean power — the utility has seen demand rise steadily. That, plus the long-term cost benefits of renewables, has made exploring ways to meet those requests a priority.

“We’re actively on our own looking for a lot of ways to maximize our renewable portfolio for all of our customers, and coal is the anti-renewable,” says John Friedrich, the California territory manager for business and community development for Liberty Utilities. “Squaw was an encouraging voice to go in that direction as were other customers.”

Liberty pushed forward with plans to lessen the dependence. They built a new 50-megawatt solar energy project in Luning, Nev. A second facility, which will be in Reno, is currently under construction. When the NV Energy contract was up for renewal, Liberty renegotiated to exclude coal power.

By Jan. 1, 2016, the grid sourcing the resort’s power was free of coal. Today, between 25-30 percent of the resort’s energy comes from renewable sources, including solar. This January, officials from Squaw and Liberty issued a joint statement taking things even farther: They would aim to use 100 percent renewable energy as soon as the end of the year. A spokeswoman said there is no hard deadline, but to help hit that goal, the company is partnering with Liberty and Tesla to install on-site batteries to store more renewable power. (See sidebar on page 68.) The announcements — and flurry of positive press that followed — were a bright spot in a season that saw a slow start due to lack of snow (revenues were down 20 percent in January) and a March avalanche that left two guests injured.

If the plans are successful and approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, Squaw will cut its carbon footprint in half — from 13,078 metric tons to an estimated 6,682 metric tons. The resort says the drop is equivalent to the annual emission output of 959 homes.

Both Squaw and Liberty say a collaborative and open relationship between the customer and the utility has helped accelerate the adoption of renewable energy.

“Liberty was very progressive, a very forward-leaning organization. They were respecting our input to move off of coal,” Wirth says. “They weren’t at all resistant, they weren’t giving the bureaucratic line… [It was] very collaborative.”

Greg Sorensen, president of Liberty Utilities’ West Region, credits Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows with being “very clear about their goal of powering their operations with 100 percent clean, renewable energy as soon as possible.”

“The fact that Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is such an engaged customer with renewable energy-use goals that align with our own is inspirational,” Sorensen said in a press release on the efforts earlier this year. “We are very supportive of their initiative, which helps accelerate our transition to renewables to benefit customers throughout our service territory.”

DOES IT PAY?

In Wirth’s eyes, the commitment to renewable energy and conservation is, at its core, a “values-based” decision. That shouldn’t come as a surprise — the entire sport is predicated on access to the outdoors, clean air and fresh snow, after all. But he says it’s also smart business, given the impact of climate change on the industry’s overall health.

Extreme variability and intensity in the weather is already affecting ski destinations in a major way, according to Dave Belin, an industry analyst with RRC Associates. Belin has seen the percentage of ski areas experiencing unplanned or scheduled closures due to weather — decisions that can result in big revenue losses — rise in recent years.

“Ski industries work best when things are predictable and things are steady,” Belin explains. “When you have high swings, whether big storms, no snow, a big temperature flux, that’s really difficult for ski area operators.”

Squaw has seen those impacts firsthand. The resort was forced to close early in 2015, when high temperatures and drought conditions led to dirt-covered runs as early as March — weeks before the ski season typically comes to a close. The 2016-2017 season was hit by volatile weather patterns, including extreme wind and late snowstorms that allowed it to stay open through July. This year, a March blizzard triggered an avalanche that forced the resort to temporarily cease operations. All those shifts can have an impact on the bottom line.

“It’s still a very good move in the long run, and we’re responding to what our customers say clearly they want.”John Friedrich, territory manager, Liberty Utilities

While the resort has seen no direct link between tourism and environmental measures, executives feel changes that are appealing to the sustainability-focused sensibilities of their customer base certainly can’t hurt. And there are more immediate business impacts, too. Renewable energy sources, like solar or wind, are generally less expensive than sources like natural gas, which are subject to market volatility. Subsidy programs aimed at promoting solar energy has made the shift even more lucrative.

“Adopting these types of technologies oftentimes results in a decreased electric bill and can save the businesses a lot of money,” says Jon Hart, a specialist in technology and distributed energy resources at the nonprofit Center for Sustainable Energy. “Even without different types of subsidies, solar energy is at the point where it can save you money.”

Squaw has seen its energy bills drop since it began using renewables. Looking ahead, actions by the Trump administration, including cutting subsidies for solar and imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum, could squeeze those margins for providers and customers. But supporters say economic and market forces behind renewables chart a clear course forward.

“It’s still a very good move in the long run, and we’re responding to what our customers say clearly they want,” says Friedrich, of Liberty Utilities. “It’s not helpful to have barriers thrown in the way of what we should be doing … But the momentum is certainly moving in this direction.”

Officials at both Liberty and Squaw say they see their own momentum continuing, too. While Wirth was an early and driving force for the changes, the broader spirit and mission behind the initiatives have been embraced by leadership in both parties. “Andy has been a great proponent of these projects and a great leader, however the projects are going forward,” Friedrich says.

Liesl Hepburn, a spokeswoman for Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, echoes Friedrich’s outlook, saying that the team in Tahoe and parent company Alterra Mountain Co., a newly-formed partnership of resorts launched last year, are on board.

“While of course Andy has led the charge on this, below him he has really built a substantial team of folks who are really well-educated on those aspects [and] will be carrying on the torch on all those fronts,” she says.  “He’s the one who got us to this point and thankfully the timing has worked where we have the foundation set, thanks to him, to move forward.” 

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