JUICE: Waiting for Goodsnow

By Published On: February 20, 2014

When I get the blues about the shortage of precipitation, including the cold fluffy kind, I remember an even more snow-deficient winter. Midwinter several years back there was zero snow on the Emerald Isle. After waiting and waiting, I called up the local ski club to find out about possible options. There was one reliable ski slope, slush or shine, within reach. Being focused on the snow-ski nexus instead of the water-energy one, I gathered my Telemark gear and headed to the slope. When I arrived, I noticed everything was green except for a square white patch on the hillside. On closer inspection, I discovered it was not man-made frozen water on the slope. It was a large white synthetic carpet. After doing a few “runs”—err slips and slides—on the white Astro Turf, I got serious rug rash and headed to the pub. Admittedly, Dublin, Ireland, isn’t known for its skiing. But, there is an Irish Ski Club. (Far more members are on pub stools than on the pale Astro Turf.) Now that the Tahoe area is within my reach, I’ve watched and waited for snow this dry winter. Little has fallen from the sky on slopes in Tahoe. Most of it is machine made. Given the very serious state drought and multiple efforts to conserve both water and energy, I wanted to know how much water and energy these snow-making apparatuses use. It is a lot. I contacted several resorts in South Lake Tahoe. The only response I received was from Heavenly ski resort, which has the most and largest snow making machines of any resort on the West Coast. Their snow-making machines are the same as those used in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Olympics. “Unfortunately we are unable to disclose both financial and energy consumption figures,” of the snow making equipment, the Heavenly ski resort spokesperson said. She did tell me that the energy used by the snow machines comes from the grid, not diesel generators like at some resorts. I did discover that it takes about 200,000 gallons of water to make one-acre foot of snow—that is a football-size field filled with snow one foot in depth. The energy “is outrageously expensive,” said Nick Hogan, SMI snow-making manufacturer representative in California. SMI snow-making machines are used both at Heavenly and Sochi. It takes an average 26 kW to convert 75 gallons of water/minute into vapor, which freezes as it comes out the of cannon into cold air, according to Hogan. The amount of water and energy used varies, the key determinants being the air temperature, the humidity, and the source and distance of the water supply. The lower the temperature, the higher the volume of water shot out of the snow machines. For example, when it is 28 degrees outside, 15 gallons of water/minute is mixed with air and freezes after being shot out of a cannon or gun, Hogan said. When it is 12 degrees outside, 150 gallons of water/minute is powered through a snow-making machine and turned into grapple. Putting that into perspective, there are currently more than 3,000 acres of Heavenly that are open for skiing and covered largely with machine-made snow. To minimally cover such an area, that translates into 200,000 gallons of water multiplied by 3,000 acres. That is about 600 million gallons of water—or more than 1,841 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, with an average family using about one acre-foot/year). If we assume an average of 26 kW per 75 gallons of water/minute, with 600,000 million gallons that amounts to 133,333 kWh, or more than 133 MWh. That hefty number exponentially expands when one considers that Heavenly is just one of many large resorts in the Tahoe region. Loads of snow is also manufactured at Squaw Valley, Northstar, Kirkwood, and Sugar Bowl. Here is why snow-making is so energy intensive: Water and air are pumped through a network of pipes and hoses on the mountain. “The air and water collide in the snow gun, where the water droplets are blown apart by the compressed air,” according to Heavenly’s website. The microscopic water particles are then shot out of the nozzle and the vaporized water freezes as it falls to the ground. There is also the energy use involved in getting the water to up the mountain to the snow canons and guns. Sometimes it is pumped from far away, sometimes from nearby lakes or from groundwater. Oddly, the huge energy bills don’t seriously harm the resorts’ bottom lines. It is manageable because snow-making costs are built into the resorts’ annual budgets, said Hogan. More interesting is that the amount of snow-making in Tahoe this season does not exceed the amount made in many other years. That is because of the unusually warm weather—this week it has been in the mid-30s to 50s during the day—impacts the ability to use snow machines. If it is too warm outside, the snow cannons aren’t fired off. In the 1992-93 ski season, Heavenly made enough snow “to cover the equivalent of 100 miles of highway one foot deep,” states the resort. Although I love skiing I have difficulties with snow-making given water supplies—including for hydropower—being seriously constrained. You and I are urged to cut our water use by 20 percent and state political leaders proposed spending almost $690 million on emergency drought relief. Maybe the Irish have the right idea. Spread some snow white Astro Turf on California’s slopes to protect our precious water and energy resources. Some temporary rug rash pales in comparison to jeopardizing our water, energy and climate.

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