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.”
By 2019, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows may also be able to make the claim of being 100 percent powered by 100 percent renewable sources. It’s an asterisked claim. Not all of the electrons in the batteries will be as pure as the driven snow. Liberty hopes to offer customers green tariffs, a form of a renewable energy certificates, at an added cost of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour. This will entitle customers to claim the exclusive use of that portion of Liberty’s renewable portfolio.
“This can be done in the present tense,” said Wirth when we talked in March, shortly before he unexpectedly resigned from the Alterra Mountain Co. resort. “It just takes some will and interest and drive.”
The story at Squaw is not of a future arrived, but one that can be glimpsed. Renewable energy prices have been tumbling, in many cases undercutting conventional fossil fuel sources. The fuel of renewables is free, unlike coal and gas, although far less predictable. Even so, by dispatching electrons to disparate markets, engineers have been able to deepen the renewable portfolios. In Denver, Xcel Energy is pushing toward 55 percent renewables in the portfolio by 2025, and company personnel say they can see how it would be possible to get to 70 percent. The company provides power to several of Colorado’s ski areas, including those in Summit County, and indirectly to Aspen and Steamboat. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says 80 percent is possible given existing technology.
Change rarely occurs without provocation. The Colorado utility was pushed by successively higher renewable energy mandates delivered first by voters and then legislators. California legislators, in laws passed in 2013 and amended in 2016, are helping drive a brisk reduction in the price of batteries. The state’s three largest utilities are required to provide 1,825 megawatts of storage. Massachusetts in 2017 adopted a 200-megawatt mandate.
Battery prices fell as much as 32 percent for several years but now are declining by about 8 percent annually. A March report by GTM Research predicts continued declines of about 8 percent annually through 2022. Two key federal tax incentives, the investment tax credit and the modified accelerated cost recovery system, have encouraged adoption of energy storage systems such as batteries.
Solar-plus-storage projects could be competitive without federal tax incentives in California by 2020, according to Paul Denholm, senior policy energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He told Utility Divide in May that solar-plus-storage could soon be competitive with gas-fired peaking plants in other locations, including the Southwest. Much depends upon the fluctuations in the cost of natural gas.
Forbes last year said that a $250 billion battery manufacturing industry was in the making. Tesla aims to be part of that with its manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. Its largest factory, called Gigafactory 1, is located 70 miles from Squaw, east of Reno. You can easily recognize the 4-million-square-foot factory in the desert landscape while flying into the Reno-Tahoe international Airport.
“And it’s only 35 percent done. It’s absolutely the best example, the poster child, for scaling,” said Wirth.
When the Squaw project was announced in February, J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technology officer and a member of the original founding team, said Tesla has much bigger ambitions than just transportation.
“Tesla’s mission is to get us (the world) to 100 percent renewable energy as fast as possible,” he said in the webcast press conference. Tesla began its energy storage development initiative seven or eight years ago. “We just saw it as an inevitable part of the future as everything progressed toward more and more renewable energy,” he said.
He oversees the technical and engineering design of Tesla’s electric cars.
“Inherently, storage and renewable energy are linked,” he said. “You can’t get to 100 percent renewable energy without having a way to firm that output, to ensure you have that reliability in the process, so you can manage the gird and manage the loads. That’s why we have invested so much in the Gigafactory.”
But if renewable generation is a goal, the Powerpacks being manufactured by Panasonic at Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 can help utilities save money by avoiding transmission lines and excess generation capacity—all while making the grid more stable and robust. The key, he added, was to put the storage in the right places. Squaw Valley, he said, was the perfect example.
David Pasieka, chief operating officer of Liberty Utilities, also identified battery storage as the “key element to making the transition to clean energy.”
In a personal note, Pasieka noted that his daughter has asthma. “I would like to think that what we’re doing here today and our mission tomorrow will help her breath easier as she goes on in life.”
Going off script, he then talked about growing up in Southern California, when the outdoor air was too filthy for healthy breathing. He remembers thinking somebody should do something.
“Well, I’m here on a panel with people and companies that are doing something about it today,” he said.
The bigger issue is that of climate change. During his time at Squaw, Wirth saw some of the wild swings that climate scientists say will become even more common as the atmosphere continues to heat. After two parched years the snowpack went to near normal before yet another year of unprecedented snow. Then came last winter’s weirdness: almost no snow followed by a near-record March.
Climate scientists at Stanford University, about three hours away, and other institutions have consistently said that greenhouse gas emissions must be slowed or even reversed. From 280 parts per million at the start of the industrial revolution, the levels of carbon dioxide crept upward to about 315 ppm in the 1950s. Since then, CO2 levels have soared, topping 400 ppm just two or three years ago.
Is it too late to preserve the climate in which the modern ski industry was created? Probably. Scientists predict continued warming even if the global civilization can miraculously end the practices that have created the outsized greenhouse effect. A special concern is when oceans will release their heat into the atmosphere.
Some prominent scientists have argued that we need to figure out ways how to reduce emissions through various—but unproven and perhaps risky—geoengineering. One such prototype of a carbon-capturing technology, funded in part by Bill Gates, has been operating at Squamish, between Vancouver and Whistler. Promising results were announced in June.
“I think it’s a little bit frustrating that we might be a generation or two on the wrong side of climate change,” Wirth said when we talked in March. “Of course, climate change is absolutely real. It’s an existential threat to our environment.”
But Wirth objects to accepting its inevitably. The challenge he sees is to “actually get something done instead of just talking about it,” he says. America’s waterways in the 1960s were badly polluted, he pointed out, but that has been turned around.
Climate change, he concedes, is a much bigger challenge. “But I would say this is just a question of will.”
Squaw Valley’s plan to use Tesla to lower risk to skiers and to snow, by Allen Best, Mountain Town News, September 16, 2018.