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New York ski areas try to catch a breeze to save energy

Ski resorts need a lot of snow to stay in business. But Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. So, many ski areas in New York have to make their own snow. While that process keeps skiers on the slopes, it’s also the single biggest financial threat to the industry, according to Hunter Mountain Chief Engineer Scott Berwick.

“Our single biggest expense is making snow. It’s a very costly operation,” Berwick says.

What makes snow expensive is the energy required to produce it. Hunter Mountain spends about $1 million a year on electricity just to power up its snow guns. The guns use a combination of water and compressed air to spit out snowflakes and they take a lot of juice to make a few inches of snow.

Berwick says it’s very tough to make money in the ski industry since it’s so driven by the bottom line. If those energy challenges continue, he says, resorts might have to shut down.

Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R-Schoharie) says that would be a tragedy because many communities depend on the ski industry for their economic viability. He says winter sports bring in more than $200 million in economic activity in the Catskills area. It’s a $2 billion industry nationwide.

“If the tourism based economy were to fail, they are by far the largest private sector employer of individuals in the region. So people would be very much at risk,” Lopez says.

To help cope with the cost of snow, Jiminy Peak, a ski resort just across the border in Massachusetts, has installed a wind turbine to produce power for the resort. It was the first ski area in the northeast to do so, back in 2007. Jiminy Peak CEO Brian Fairbank says after extensive efforts to cut energy costs, there was nothing else he could do to keep the business competitive.

“We are an energy hog making snow. It’s a requirement for our industry. It’s the only way you can have an insurance policy to protect your business,” Fairbank tells the Innovation Trail.

The turbine is called Zephyr, and it’s named after the Greek God of wind. It generates more than 30 percent of Jiminy Peak’s electricity. Fairbank says because of it, his energy bill will be stable for the next 20 years.

Hunter Mountain had a wind turbine back in the early 1980’s. But unlike at Jiminy Peak, Berwick says it didn’t work out because wind technology wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today.

Hunter Mountain is once again investing in wind power, but this time is pursuing a non-traditional turbine design. Berwick has partnered with private investors to build a wind farm in the Catskills, using turbines that look like giant megaphones, painted green to match the landscape. Berwick says the resort is hoping that once the project is complete, the turbine will stabilize the resort’s energy cost for years to come.