This winter, sunny days will be just as welcome as snowy days for one ski area in western Maine.
Mt. Abram Ski Area in Greenwood, Maine, is wrapping up installation of 803 solar panels that will be used to help pay for the mountain's snow-making efforts. The switch to solar will offset 70 percent of their annual energy usage and save costs from pricey and environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels.
Matt Hancock, co-owner of Mt. Abram, said there was a combination of factors that went into developing the project, which they first began researching back in October 2009.
Hancock said price fluctuation in energy for heating oil or diesel fuel, used for the snow groomers and snow-making system, has the ability to be very impactful for the mountain. A renewable energy system can fix the cost of their daily energy usage, he explained.
"You now have a known cost of energy for whatever amount that you produce," Hancock said.
Another key factor in the transition to solar was their clientele, who Hancock describes as outdoor enthusiasts. Hancock believes that customers who care deeply about the environment will recognize Mt. Abram's green initiatives and would be more willing to plan a trip to the mountain.
"I've always felt that people who are passionate about getting up on a Friday morning or a Saturday morning, when it's 7 degrees out and going to play in the outdoors, are people who are more passionate about the environment," Hancock said.
The ski area is planning a commissioning celebration on Dec. 4 that will mark flipping the switch to make the panels live, just in time for opening day on Dec. 13.
In the early part of the season, Hancock said that they rely on man-made snow more frequently because the weather is typically more inconsistent. Having the new system done in time for the Christmas holiday, one of the busiest periods of the year for ski resorts, is pivotal because the difference in having snow on 15 trails versus five is dramatic.
"It's a 20-week season, at least on paper, but you could argue it's a two-week season," Hancock said.
The mountain's snow-making systems were also upgraded, in part to allow quicker response to challenging weather events such as unseasonably warm weather and rainy or icy conditions.
Every ski area or resort begins the year with a targeted goal of what they want to accomplish with their snow-making process. The goal is to make enough snow to cover the necessary amount of terrain to open and feed more snow onto high-traffic areas, such as snow tubing or snowboarding parks.
"One of the biggest things you need to do is recover from unwanted weather events," Hancock said.
The solar power project is the latest in a series of sustainable endeavors for the mountain. Mt. Abram is one of only two ski areas in North America that offer charging stations for hybrid and electric vehicles and it has been recognized by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) for switching from a fossil fuel based heating system to a wood pellet-based system, which is described as a carbon neutral and locally produced fuel source.
Only Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Massachusetts, which generates 100 percent of its energy from wind and solar power, is more reliant on renewable energy.
Sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions continues to remain a top priority throughout the entire ski industry. Since 2000, the NSAA's "Sustainable Slopes" environmental charter has provided a framework for ski areas around the country on sustainability and enhanced environmental performance, according to the program's website. More than 190 resorts endorse the charter according to the NSAA.
Hancock said he believes that more ski areas across the country will begin to turn to renewable energy.
"When your business relies on cold, snowy winters, you need to support that from a climate standpoint," Hancock said.