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Snowmass avoids fuel catastrophe with lifts

Steve Benson

Snowmass has averted a potential disaster that could have left hundreds stranded on ski lifts after the ski area’s biodiesel fuel source was improperly blended early in the season.

The problem went unnoticed until the cold snap earlier this month, when several snowcats, which run on biodiesel, started breaking down.

“We lost four in one night,” said Doug Mackenzie, Snowmass Ski Area manager. The frigid temperatures caused the unbalanced fuel to clog the machines’ filters, rendering them temporarily useless.

“No damage was done to the machines, they were just out of commission for a few hours,” Mackenzie said. “We’d change the filters and get them started. It became routine once they found out what the problem was.”

But there was an even bigger problem looming.

The mountain’s lift system, which runs on electricity, is backed up with biodiesel-fueled generators that kick in if the power goes out. On a cold day, the biodiesel could have clogged the generators.

“If a cat stalls, we call up maintenance, they change the filter and get the cat running,” Mackenzie said. “But here’s the problem: We had filled all the [lifts’] diesel tanks on the mountain with this fuel.

“We didn’t want to have several hundred people hanging in the sky. Something like that could be life-threatening.”

Once the problem was discovered, crews immediately began draining the tanks of the biodiesel. By Wednesday, they had replaced all but one of the lift’s tanks with regular diesel and are on track to have the situation entirely resolved by the weekend, Mackenzie said.

“We’ve addressed the problem, there’s no danger,” he said.

The headache began when the fuel supplier, which Mackenzie didn’t identify, mixed the solution by hand in the field rather than at the plant, where it’s metered. A full 30,000-gallon tank was affected. He said the company has worked to remedy the problem.

“Our supplier has been very helpful in doing everything they can to help us with this,” Mackenzie said. “They did give us additives that are supposed to cure the problem. But we don’t know if it will work until it gets real cold.”

Auden Schendler, the Skico’s director of environmental affairs, said the problem has nothing to do with the effectiveness of biodiesel, which, when mixed properly, reduces emissions by 20 percent. He said when something goes wrong with an environmentally friendly system, all the blame falls on the green technology ” “like there’s a green boogie man,” he said.

If there was a problem inherent to biodiesel at cold temperatures, all four mountains would have been impacted.

“We’re running on 20 percent biodiesel, but the best we can tell is this is not a biodiesel problem,” he said. “If it was, we would have had this problem at the other mountains.

“There’s a mythology that biodiesel freezes up.”

The Skico currently spends an extra $50,000 a year on its biodiesel program.

Mackenzie said he’s not too concerned since the lift issue has been resolved and additives may prevent the fuel from clogging during future cold snaps.

“What we may have is a problem we can solve through management,” he said.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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