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Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Updated: June 27, 2:03 PM ET
Snow Business: The snowmaker

By Megan Michelson

Colorado's Loveland Ski Area is often one of the first resorts to open, thanks to snowmaking.
Snowmaker Entrepreneur Marketing Guy Shop Owner Heli Outfitter

[The 2011-12 winter was one of the lowest snow years on record. Visitor numbers were down 15 percent at resorts across the country, gear sales declined 12 percent, and spirits were low. In this new five-part interview series, called Snow Business, we talk to the people in the ski and snowboard industry who are coming up with innovative ways to keep their businesses thriving -- even during a bad winter. First up: A snowmaker with grand ideas. Stay tuned next week for the second installment.]

Many ski resorts last winter found themselves in a predicament: Natural snowfall was minimal and unreliable, and temperatures became too warm to blow manmade snow. The solution? Robin Smith, the president of a Colorado-based snowmaking consultant company called Snow Consult, has some ideas. He advises ski resorts, big and small -- including Colorado's Aspen, Breckenridge, Keystone, and East Coast resorts Mountain Creek, Holiday Valley, and others -- on how to improve efficiency and reduce costs of their snowmaking equipment, even in warming temperatures.

A ski resort will call me and I'll take all of their financial data and snowmaking data for the last four or five years. I'll put it in a format that will benchmark it compared to other, similar resorts. Is Beaver Creek making snow better and faster than Keystone, for example, or is the reverse true?

The industry now knows it has under-invested in snowmaking. I am busy as hell planning for expansions, but you can't just turn on the tap. Access to capital is a problem, permits can be a problem, resistance to technology amongst rank and file snowmakers is surprisingly a problem.

A lot of the ski resorts I work with have reported temperatures five and six degrees warmer, on average. That's huge and unprecedented.

I think global warming is a fait accompli. But we already have the snowmaking technology to neutralize it, at lower energy expense and carbon footprint at least in the next several lifetimes.

Many resorts separate their garbage but Aspen is sincerely committed to the environment and lowering their carbon footprint. I've worked with Aspen for six years, and they realize there is real beef in snowmaking. They make more Winter X Games snow each year, faster, while lowering the kW and carbon footprint to do it -- by a lot.

My studies at Aspen have helped them swap their fan gun fleet to guns that use 37 percent less energy and work better in the marginal temperatures that we should be resigned to. The next step is to automate their new air and water guns, which can run at 20 times less energy. That's like the difference between a Kenworth truck versus a Prius.

We don't think about natural snow -- we assume that won't happen. We look at temperatures and how many hours it will be below 28 degrees, which is the threshold for snowmaking. Once you find that out, there are different snowmaking solutions.

Places where it's really cold, like Jackson Hole, Wyo., have a bigger window for how long they can make snow. The reverse would be someplace like Wintergreen, Va., -- it's barely snowmaking weather there. The dramatic change now is that these windows are much shorter than they used to be.

Ninety percent of snowmaking systems in the U.S. are still manual. Which means it might take a resort two and a half hours once it's cold enough to make snow to get the system fully on and stabilized. That's why more ski areas need to look at automated systems: They need every hour of that cold-weather window.

Low-energy guns have been the gold standard in Europe for a long time, where labor and energy are more expensive than here in the U.S. Also places like Australia and New Zealand have helped pioneer marginal temperature snowmaking, since they have warmer temperatures.

I'm a one-man shop and I'm in very high demand. It was a busy year for my business. Since it was a bad winter, a lot of resorts wanted studies done on their snowmaking.