Sun Valley Area as an Oasis Destination Resiliency Vision Demonstration Project

Climate change has been and will continue to affect a resort which has been historically dependent upon weather, weather which affects the snow for skiing and the tourist experience.  The West has become hotter and drier, and the Wood River Valley has gone through decades of drought, out-of-control wildfires, and flooding after extreme moisture events.  Snow levels are predicted to retreat to higher elevations in the next decades and skiers may need to take lifts down part of the mountain in the not-to-distant future.  The strong summer tourist season already has been shortened by fire evacuations in some years, and by the history, now anticipation, of smoke-filled August days as forest fires rage. 

              The Sun Valley resort area, reliant historically on 40%-50% coal-fired power to run energy-intensive snow-making guns, chairlifts, summer outdoor ice rink, and hotel operations, has not adequately prepared for climate change.  The resort area is located at the edge of the grid in Idaho, and is extremely vulnerable to extreme weather.  On Christmas Eve 2009, two Idaho Power transmission lines coming into the Hailey substation down valley failed when temperatures were in the teens.  No power reached the resort for almost 12 hours.  The resort was full of guests who couldn’t get warm and who couldn’t even get a cup of coffee as there was no backup power source in the North Valley.  If one did not have enough gas in a car to drive two hours to where there was power in Idaho, one couldn’t leave.  If the power outage had gone on for another day, people would have frozen to death in their homes.  Sun Valley Resort did install a diesel generator on-site after that event, but it would barely heat the main lodge in a future emergency.

              Yet Idaho has some of the best renewable sources of energy; it has better wind resources than California, it has tremendous solar availability, and it has naturally-occurring geothermal.  Unfortunately, it has a monopoly traditional utility which has resisted renewable energy for decades.  Idaho Power killed PURPA projects through restrictive PPAs which make projects un-financeable, it has asked for, and received outright moratoriums on PURPA projects, and it has attempted to eliminate net-metering for residential solar.  Idaho Power is currently in application to the PUC to construct a $35 million transmission line in Blaine County’s scenic view corridor, from the Hailey substation to the North.  This line would have been useless to provide additional backup power in the 2009 scenario, and Idaho Power had a tough time demonstrating the need for this line at the PUC; PUC’s own staff testified against the need for this old technology. 

This has put $35 million in play on the table however, $35 million that could be spent in other ways in the Wood River Valley for energy security.  There are locations available in the Wood River Valley for community-scale solar projects; there are people who want to do them but who ran into an Idaho Power 2 year contract PPA.  There are vast areas of roofs in the resort area available for solar, tremendous solar generation, and land available for energy storage.

Meanwhile, the Wood River Valley has become more than just a ski destination for so many visitors; it has become an Oasis Destination.  People come for the clean air, the blue skies, and the safe environment.  Allen and Company guests feel comfortable to bring their families to the conference.  Retirees locate here for quality of life.   People are living longer by living well, exercising in the natural environment and finding community through the symphony, the writer’s conferences, and other cultural amenities for an educated population.   There are going to be fewer and fewer places where one can feel safe with one’s family and live healthily while mentally engaged; these are going to be the Oasis Destinations for residents, part-time residents, and visitors alike.

I propose that the Sun Valley resort area of Blaine County undertake a Resiliency Vision Demonstration Project with a goal of 1) demonstrating a model of resiliency adaptation as a ski resort to the effects of climate change and 2) disconnecting the resort from reliance on coal-fired power, a power source that significantly contributes to climate change, 3) installing a cutting edge cyber-secure grid with INL’s world-leading technology.  In this demonstration project, the first step would be to completely retrofit the all communities in the resort area with the latest clean tech micro-grid technology and energy efficiency measures.   Onsite distributed energy generation and batteries storage with smart micro-grids will provide energy security for guests and residents alike.  Critical service areas like the hospital can have a microgrid that islands in an emergency and sustains itself.  There are now finance companies like Generate Capital which provide loan funds for communities to undertake these energy efficiency and renewable generation projects.  Significant operational savings will be realized from energy efficiency retrofits and some tax credits for the installation of solar can be utilized.  The area’s bus fleet can convert, through existing grants and financing, to electric buses, charged by solar and with solar battery backup storage.  These buses will be able to soon discharge their own batteries in a reverse flow and can be utilized as mobile energy sources in an emergency.

The second step in the project will be to educate and influence Idaho Power to adopt cutting-edge utility-scale smart grid technologies with a larger mix of renewables.   IPCo has struggled with the effects of years and years of drought which has reduced the availability of their hydropower resources, a large part of their generation mix after their 40% coal.  IPCo has bought up irrigation rights from farmers to keep water above the dams and have extensively cloud-seeded in the hopes of creating more snowfall.  Their legacy river dams are currently in a federal relicensing process and will cost more to operate regardless of water supply.  In contrast, Warren Buffett’s Mid-American Energy owns many of the utilities surrounding Idaho and has been heavily investing in renewable energy projects. 

IPCo received millions of dollars of federal incentives to install smart meters in all of Idaho in recent years.  These meters have been installed, but have been little utilized to their capacities.  Idaho’s utility could deploy a robust program of demand response and smart appliances/smart meters to shift load at peak power demand hours.  Ratepayers would not have to pay for building peaker power plants that only run for those few hours of peaking power use.  Additional technology, such as line loss detectors, can be deployed to enable the grid to become more resilient and effective.  Additional micro-grids could be installed in Idaho for energy load balancing and for security reasons. 

The third step of the project will be working with INL to model and install cutting edge cyber-secure technology.  Grids nationwide are vulnerable to being hacked and have been shown to have been compromised by rogue actors.  Idaho’s power comes from a long distance from other states on transmission lines for the most part, from Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming.  This adds up to one big grid, very vulnerable to disruption over a large geographic area.  If the power goes out, communications can be completely lost for even first responders.  

But Idaho has world-class resources.  The Department of Energy and US Dept of Homeland Security selected INL to lead the nation in securing critical infrastructures and reducing the cyber vulnerabilities associated with control systems.  INL has a full-scale transmission Cyber Security Test Bed for control systems and other components in the Idaho desert, along with its Cyber Security Research Department which receives significant federal funding.  The Wood River Valley has Power Engineers, a nationally ranked engineering firm with offices across the US and overseas, and an exemplary record with federal agencies executing federal projects and cyber-security specialty focus.  Idaho has Schweitzer Electrical Laboratories, which has worked extensively with Idaho Power, and has been a leader apart from that in installing microgrids from Saudi Arabia to San Diego, with its cyber-security team.  I believe that the Sun Valley Resort Area, as a leader in Idaho’s economy and which hosts world leaders and their families , could have considerable influence on other resort areas to show the advantages to a tourist economy of smart, cyber-secure grid  and micro-grid technology.

The fourth step of the project will be guest and community education.  People come to Sun Valley area from all over America and the world.  The Resort has a unique opportunity to supply information directly in guest rooms about climate change and the facts about technology solutions.  Most people do not know that solar has become the least cost power resource in the world.   Guests need to learn that the blue skies that they value in Idaho could be lost to worldwide escalating coal-fired emissions and that the West is now at risk of catastrophic fires due to climate change.  Fireside chats in the Resort area can be regularly held with guest speakers, along with The Sun Valley Institute for Resiliency’s annual conference.  Marketing of the Resort can emphasize that guests can be part of the climate change solution by choosing a resort which is demonstrating climate change front lines engagement.  Opinion Pieces can be contributed to local papers and in Idaho state-wide publications.  Tourism, and specifically Sun Valley, is a significant contributor to Idaho’s overall economy.  This Demonstration Project can show Idaho and other resorts that people value sustainable businesses.

Furthermore, the state of Idaho can be educated on the value of renewable energy jobs and businesses for the state.  Perhaps, as many cutting-edge technology companies come to install demonstration projects of their solutions at the Resort area, they can be encouraged to look at relocating their businesses and manufacturing to Idaho.  The Resort area can provide the seed kernel for sustainable economic development throughout Idaho.  Perhaps Ketchum can become a hub where these clean technology companies may want to establish an office, one short direct flight away from Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, LA, and Salt Lake.   Employees are valuing quality of life and company purpose in their career choices.  Perhaps Sun Valley/Ketchum can become a financial center with a cluster of renewable finance companies where utility scale projects come to be financed, much like Switzerland is associated with international banking.

The fifth step of the Demonstration Project will be to evolve the Sun Valley Resort Area from a tourist economy dependent upon weather  to an Oasis Destination Resort with a business plan that is in harmony with the environmental elements that attract visitors to the Wood River Valley of Idaho.  The target market for the Resort Area could shift from day skiers to visitors who value Oasis Destination elements.  Rather than investing in more snow-making guns that gobble up vast amounts of water and energy, the Resort Area can invest in solar-power electric car charging stations for guests driving their Teslas up from the Bay Area and Seattle.  Already the Writer’s Conference, the Symphony, the Jazz Festival, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, and the Allen & Company conference do not depend upon skiing conditions.  But they are affected by smoky skies from wildfires.  The Sun Valley Resort Area could be become the number one resort to host the many clean tech, micro-grid, renewables, and related conferences which occur in shoulder-season months.  The ability to tour new technologies can add a draw for attendees. 

Many investors have aligned their investments and purchases with their values and have become Impact Investors, looking for social mission outcomes of their investments along with financial returns.  According to the Global Impact Investing Network, over $228 Billion is under management in impact investments today.  Impact investors can further walk their talk by choosing to stay at a sustainable conference resort.  The Resort could market to Universities which have divested of carbon investments for retreats and planning sessions. The Resort could market to family offices and venture funds for annual meetings.  Nancy Pfund of DBL Investors, which has invested in Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX, already comes to the Wood River Valley for the Sun Valley Sustainability Conference.

This brief outline of a Sun Valley Resort Area Oasis Destination Resiliency Vision  Demonstration Project is but a tip of the iceberg of possibilities of the Project.  I hope that it can illustrate however, that this Project will have a large ripple effect on other ski resorts, other resorts in general, on the anti-renewables opinions held in the state of Idaho.  It can clearly demonstrate, to a business community and to a state, the economic benefit of adoption of clean and sustainable technologies.  Never underestimate the power of self-interest!  When jobs can be created and money can be made, the politicians will follow with policies.

Author: Kiki Tidwell 4/14/19