Gun Control: How Ski Areas Are Tackling Snowmaking in 2013

New management practices are boosting efficiency and sustainability

Stratton negated the need for 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel by revamping their snowmaking management. PHOTO: STRATTON MOUNTAIN

In a small conference room at this week’s NSAA Eastern Tradeshow, every seat and parts of the walls filled up with ski area operations staff from across the East Coast curious about how Stratton reduced their snowmaking costs by 12 percent over the course of one year while still bumping output.

As a defense against climate change, resorts have put a lot of money into more efficient snowguns recently, but as George Lawrence of the non-profit Vermont Energy Investments Corporation and Jeff Cullinane, formerly of Stratton Mountain, showed, the key to dropping 157,000 killowatt hours of the mountain’s annual electrical bill wasn’t just technological. While a new fleet of high-efficiency snowguns helped Stratton become more effective with the 300,000,000 gallons of water it uses each season for snowmaking, the linchpin was maintaining that system and creating a completely new SOP (Standard Operating Procedure for the anti-brevity crowd) for Stratton’s snowmaking team.

While snowmakers have been known to make their calls on gut feelings informed by weather forecasts, some data, and real-time temperature monitoring, Stratton’s team, led by Cullinane, beat the problem to death with data. They submetered the snowmaking equipment and buildings, and pulled in reams of real-time data about their production to figure out exactly what temperatures produced the most snow. They pored over their electrical contracts to figure out when to make snow the cheapest, watched futures markets for diesel fuel and created forecasts for electricity demand. They digitized and standardized a process that had been analog and traced with a pencil. Now, a plethora of real-time data about Stratton’s snowmaking system performance is delivered to management’s computer screens every fifteen minutes.

Combined with a new fleet of snowguns, the end result was a snowmaking system efficient enough for Stratton to get rid of a diesel air compressor that sucked up 150,000 gallons of fuel a season while still being able to provide coverage for 93 percent of the mountain. With snowmaking the biggest annual cost to a ski area after payroll, management is starting to put more and more of a focus on how to boost efficiency. As electricity rates and diesel prices continue to climb, the concerns for cost are outweighing any environmental motivations, but they’re heading down the same path.

Cullinane said that the biggest missed opportunity is better management with a sharp focus on real-time. When he asked if any of the resorts represented in the room had a staff or person dedicated to monitoring and managing the mountain’s energy use, just one gentleman from Mount Snow raised his hand.

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