Stuart Winchester of Brooklyn, New York, waits for the lift to open at Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley, Maine, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Winchester arrived at the mountain at 7:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the lift opened on opening day. Credit: Daryn Slover/Sun Journal via AP

A snowy ski resort and a sun-dependent solar farm might not seem like a natural pairing, but in the mountains of Maine, it just might work.

Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort in Rangeley has partnered with Boston-based clean energy company Nexamp for the construction of a new 31-acre community solar farm on its property, which is planned to begin construction in 2022. The project has economically energized the once financially ailing ski resort while making it more self-sustaining – a model that could be used for more ski resorts in Maine as climate change continues to wreak havoc on winter weather and make them more dependent on artificial snow.

Arctaris Impact Investors purchased Saddleback in 2020 with the goal of making the ski resort a powerhouse in the Rangeley community. It has since installed a variety of new equipment and has started construction on a mid-mountain restaurant-lodge, but they wanted the resort to do something more.

“We look at impacts through three lenses: one is economic, one is social and one is environmental,” said Derek DeAndrade, chief of staff at Arctaris Impact Investors. “The potential for developing a solar project was a really good fit for our impact investing strategy and we happened to have the land to support it.”

Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort had another problem, too. The resort uses a lot of energy to transport water from Saddleback Lake up the mountain and turn it into snow.

“That is more and more the case because the areas rely more and more on man-made snow,” said Tom Federle, general counsel at Saddleback Mountain. “Energy costs were a big drag on the economics of the ski area and one of the reasons that Saddleback has struggled economically for decades.”

Despite common misconceptions, a place like Saddleback is perfectly suitable for solar energy production, said John Murphy, senior vice president of corporate development at Nexamp.

“Over the course of the year, even remote areas in northern Maine are certainly economical choices for developing solar,” Murphy said. “It’s about the developed technology and the orientation of the project. In some cases if the terrain is sloping properly you can have even more benefit.”

The Rangeley community stands to benefit from that productive solar energy as well. Under Maine’s Net Energy Billing program enacted by the Mills administration in 2019, the community solar farm will generate clean energy that is sent directly to the energy grid. Other community businesses can subscribe to receive credits from the solar farm toward their electric bill, Murphy explained, though those benefits will be tied to the performance of the system.

Once the project got the green light, the first step was to pick a site that wouldn’t disrupt ski activities or the natural beauty of the area, which is located right by the Appalachian Trail. The team eventually found a spot adjacent to an existing transmission line that sloped gently behind a mountain knoll, so it wasn’t visible from any public trails or waterways.

Saddleback handled the permitting and interconnection with the grid through Central Maine Power Co. because it wanted control over where the project was located and how the development proceeded. It partnered with Nexamp to construct and operate the facility, in part because of the quality solar energy work the company has already done in Maine, from Limerick to Milo.

Aside from reducing the ski resort’s energy costs and adding revenue to the once cash-strapped resort, the solar farm will have the capacity to generate 7.36 megawatts of clean energy operating in ideal conditions, for a grand total of about 9,916,000 kilowatt-hours a year, which is enough electricity for approximately 1,200 average Maine homes for a year, or equivalent to removing 1,500 cars from Maine roads for a year.

Saddleback’s community solar farm is set to open in late 2022. If this model works, it could be applied to other ski resorts in Maine in the future, especially if they are close to existing power infrastructure and have space to spare. Ski resorts stand to be negatively affected by a warming climate and tend to have a wealth of undeveloped land.

“Solar development doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with continued operations of any type and a ski resort is no different,” Murphy said. “It’s again another reminder that sustainable development and economic development do go hand in hand.”