Aspen Skiing Company’s in-house snow and energy experts in the heart of the snowmaking beast — the primary pump house — on Snowmass Mountain. L-to-R: Jonathan “Jonboy” Beal, Ryland French, Frank White, Colin “Smartest Snowmaker” Martin, Jesse “Trailbone” Thome. PC: Michele Cardamone Photography
Our livelihoods and recreation — and some might even say our mental health and spiritual wellbeing — are depending on Frank White. As the head of snowmaking operations at Snowmass Mountain, Frank has the hopes of the community resting on his shoulders. More than any other human in the Roaring Fork Valley, he is tasked with delivering the snow that fuels the community, and doing so on a deadline. His challenge is to open 100% of terrain at the SkiCo’s largest mountain, before Christmas, no matter what Mother Nature has to say about it.
And the past few years, she has had quite a lot to say.
“Weather is the variable we’re stuck with,” says the genial snow guru who counts 25 years at Aspen Skiing Company, 24 of them on snow detail.
Working with a team of three, the appropriately named White approaches snowmaking with the perspective of an artist and the mind of a scientist. Juggling a slew of variables (some of them under his control, many of them not), the snowmaker is constantly tinkering with the recipe: water, air, “hang time” (the seconds that transpire between the liquid leaving the snow gun and hitting the ground), a “nucleator” that promotes freezing, temperature, humidity, and electricity. When the mix is right, the result is a snow crystal, the Valley’s frozen currency.
Of all of the variables, the one White most wishes to control is the amount of electricity used to make snow on demand.
“My main focus is to try and minimize the use of energy. We want to keep it as low as possible.”
White has his eyes on maintaining the bottom of the mountain — and the bottom line. During the “winter build” season of November and December, snowmaking is the ski company’s largest consumer of electricity.
White and his team collaborated with Torrent Engineering and Equipment to re-design the way they use energy in snowmaking. Could they deliver more water (a.k.a. snow), earlier, using less per-snow-gun kilowatts?
With a little box known as a Variable Frequency Drive, the answer was yes.
VFDs, as they’re known, are smart devices that throttle down a motor so that it uses only the energy necessary at any given time. Rather than running 24/7 at full steam (the typical on-or-off way that a motor without a VFD operates), motors with VFDs adjust to run at their optimal efficiency. They vary the frequency of the motor to meet the demand of the building, in this case, the primary pump house on Snowmass Mountain.
With VFDs in place on four new 600-horsepower motors — for which CORE provided a $10,000 custom big-business rebate — White’s team was able to increase their water capacity by 80% while lowering their actual electricity usage by 17%. Read that again: almost double the capacity for just 83% of the energy.
They got a huge assist this year from Mother Nature, delivering what White calls the best snowmaking conditions in 25 years. They know they won’t be able to count on numbers like these in the future. In a more typical winter, it’s anticipated that their added capacity would be a net carbon gain. The important thing to note here is that overall, including VFDs in the new setup was estimated to help them avoid 150,000 kilowatt hours in the first season, enough to cover the average electricity usage of 13 homes powered locally by Holy Cross Energy for a year. There was no entity twisting Aspen Skiing Company’s arm to invest in the technology; they chose to lead and then reached out to CORE to back them up.
“With climate change, expanded snowmaking is going to happen one way or another for us to remain viable [as a business],” said Ryland French, Aspen Skiing Company Energy Manager. “Then let’s stay as efficient as possible. It’s about smart growth. CORE helps us do that.”
French collaborated with CORE’s then-Commercial Programs Manager, Brad Davis, to secure a rebate that covered 7.8% of the cost of the VFDs. At first glance, this is not a sizeable chunk of the budget. But according to White, the funding paid big dividends.
“CORE’s rebates are a bonus for thinking outside the box. It’s easier to sell the project and it benefits the planet.”
He credits the VFDs for helping to get more snow online at Snowmass, this year supporting the launch of snowmaking on Adam’s Avenue and 33 acres of new terrain at Alpine Springs. This is where the snowmaker makes good on his promise to the community and to the company. In the ski industry, ROI is more than red or black on a spreadsheet; it’s measured in white: the number of ski runs opened and how early they’re delivered.
His team was able to complete “the build,” opening 100% of terrain by December 22, 2018 — ten days before New Year’s (their annual target) and 32 days before they pulled it off the unseasonably warm year prior. If White can achieve that goal before the end of December, the company avoids getting hit with a utility “demand charge,” an electricity fee that is billed for all 30 days of a month even if they go just one day into the new billing cycle — for each compressor used.
Avoiding the demand charge lightens his budget and conscience. “Turning on a second compressor, the thing that bothers me the most is the amount of coal it takes for the return: to bring that compressor online.” In this way, the VFDs are a quadruple threat: they save energy and reduce carbon load, as well as using less water and extending the life of the motors.
Ultimately, this all contributes to the ROI. As French learned in his recent Certified Energy Manager accreditation, “Anytime you don’t need 100% flow 100% of the time, VFDs are like printing money.” And, we might add, like printing clean air. This is something that more than delivers hope to a community.
If you would like to learn how VFDs can benefit your business and to plug into CORE’s commercial rebates, please reach out to CORE’s new Commercial Programs Manager Mike Bouchet via email and at 970-925-9775. Learn more at www.aspencore.org/business.