Steamboat officials consider natural gas vs. electric for Ski Time Square snowmelt system

The renovation is moving forward, but the snowmelt system remains in question

This rendering shows planned improvements at Ski Time Square.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

In an unexpected twist, a recent analysis performed by Steamboat Springs city staff has found an electric snowmelt system covering just over 10,000 square feet at Ski Time Square Drive would be twice as expensive and emit 2.3 times as much carbon as a natural gas system.

“The results of that were unexpected to say the least,” Redevelopment Authority Project Manager Gates Gooding told City Council on Tuesday, May 16. 

Before its regular meeting, City Council met as the Steamboat Springs Redevelopment Authority for a series of project updates and other business led by Gooding, who told council members the snowmelt question was the last holdup for the planned Ski Time Square Drive project.

City Council voted 5-1 to delay making a decision on the snowmelt system until early June. Gooding told council members electric and natural gas are the only known viable options, but he also expected to have more information about new technologies that could better inform council’s decision before their June meeting.

Because a decision doesn’t have to be made before the project goes to bid in mid-June, council members wanted to wait before committing to a natural gas or electric snowmelt system in hopes there could be more options that haven’t been discussed.

The project in question features a complete remake of Ski Time Square Drive including resurfacing the street and rebuilding the streetscape from the roundabout by the former Tugboat Grill & Pub and Torian Plum all the way up to the eastern end of the street. A portion of the street will be regraded, and a new turnaround will be added to the eastern end of Ski Time Square Drive.

According to staff’s analysis, based on the system specs, size of the area, average hours of operation, and the energy content of natural gas and electricity, as well as the CO2 that each fuel emits, a natural gas snowmelt system would produce roughly the same amount of carbon annually as 12.5 average American cars while an electric system would equate to about 29 cars.

This chart presented to Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, shows that an electric snowmelt system would cost twice as much and emit far more CO2 annually than a natural gas system.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

The electric system would also be more than twice as expensive to operate, Gooding added.

“And I will say that these have been quadruple-checked at this point so we feel fairly confident in their accuracy,” he said.

Gooding explained that while Yampa Valley Electric Authority is decarbonizing and an electric-resistance system is expected to emit less carbon at some point in the future, reaching parity between the two fuels is currently projected to be more than 10 years away.

However, YVEA has a goal of getting to 80% renewable energy by 2030, and an official from energy co-op told City Council that YVEA expects to meet that goal and possibly exceed it, which could make an electric system more environmentally friendly sooner than later.

“(The city’s) analysis is kind of illustrative and it’s accurate for one point in time, but it’s more just to illustrate the concept than trying to make any specific statement about aggregate emissions because, at this point, we just don’t know what that decarbonization curve will look like with Yampa Valley Electric’s electricity,” Gooding said over the phone Friday, May 19.

Some council members expressed reservations about approving a snowmelt system that breaks from the Routt County Climate Action Plan, which was adopted in 2021 and seeks to reduce the city’s use of fossil fuels.

The lone vote against delaying the decision came from council member Michael Buccino, who said he’d read city staff’s report and saw a natural gas system as the best option for this place at this time.

As previously reported, an issue over an easement had delayed the project. However, Gooding said that issue has been resolved with Alterra Mountain Co. granting the city the necessary easement without any compensation.

“At this point, the only potential issue that could hold the project up is snowmelt,” Gooding said Friday.

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