How Squaw Valley will use Tesla batteries to reduce skiing risk
Squaw Valley’s plan to use Tesla to lower risk to skiers and to snow
Andy Wirth seems to never lack enthusiasm. He jumps into everything 100 percent. This has gotten him into deep trouble at least once.
After arriving in California to run Squaw Valley in 2010, he took up skydiving. On a windy day in 2013, he was blown toward electrical transmission lines. To avoid them he instead crashed into a vineyard near Lodi, in the state’s Central Valley. His arm was ripped off and he was hung up in the air, gushing blood. As a former backcountry ranger with training in trauma medicine, he realized he’d have to help himself if he was to survive. He did survive, and that night surgeons spent 12 hours reattaching his arm surgically. Such is one outcome of risky recreation.
Squaw Valley’s effort to get on the front edge of the energy transition had a different motivation. It wanted to avoid risk. A couple of black-outs in 2011 had left skiers stranded on lifts at Squaw and adjoining Alpine Meadows. Wirth, then the chief executive at Squaw, had a conversation with Liberty Utilities, the electrical supplier. As the largest private consumer of electricity among Liberty’s 49,000 customers in the Tahoe area, what could Squaw do to minimize interruptions?
Wirth had a second and ultimately more pressing concern. About 20 percent of electricity delivered by Liberty to its Tahoe-Truckee customers came from a coal plant in Nevada. Could the utility shave the carbon from the generation portfolio and increase renewable energy?
Climate change is a giant risk to skiing. It’s a hot-button issue at Squaw also because that’s home turf for Jeremy Jones, the big-mountain snowboarder who created Protect Our Winters.
In March, when I talked with Wirth by telephone, he stressed that his conversations with Liberty were “friendly and collaborative. We didn’t take a hammer approach.” But Squaw had clear goals. “The good news is that we had a partner,” he said.
Change hasn’t happened overnight. Liberty still has a dark carbon shadow on its power supply. In 2016, it ceased getting coal-fired power from Nevada and has now added two solar farms that together deliver 65 megawatts to augment power from hydroelectric and geothermal sources.
Even so, Liberty remains 75 percent reliant upon fossil fuel generation, primarily natural gas. That is likely to decline to 70 percent next year. Company officials, however, have indicated they intend to move even more deeply into renewables
As for those power interruptions, Squaw will have to go through another ski season. A backup power plant at Squaw Valley called a microgrid must be approved by both Placer County and the California Public Utilities Commission. No decision is expected until mid-way through 2019, according to Liberty representatives.
If those plans are approved, Liberty will house lithium-ion batteries at Gold Coast, a mid-mountain location. The batteries will have a capacity to store 8 megawatts of electricity. That would be sufficient to provide electricity for four hours at Squaw and Alpine Meadows as well the 900 businesses and residents of the Olympic Valley, as the base area for Squaw is called. It won’t be enough power to sustain snowmaking, but it will keep the lights on and the bull-wheels rotating. Nobody will be left dangling in the air.
This innovation will be done without mandate, but in response to what Squaw wanted, says John Friedrich, Liberty Utilities territory manager for business and community development in California. “It‘s the right thing to do. It makes operational and economic sense.”