Voss Gondola – the greenest ski lift in the world?

The first ski lifts belched out diesel in off-grid locations. Electrification followed and alpine air became less like rush-hour Beijing. More recently, as renewable power increasingly hauls guests up mountains, visitor impacts are further reduced. Built in 2019 there is a ski lift in western Norway which shows the way to a sustainable future in ski areas. Visionary yet familiar, the Voss Gondola uses existing technologies that are found all over Europe, to creating possibly the greenest ski lift in the world.

Canary in the mine

There are few more profound moments than standing atop of a snow-capped peak, gazing across enormous expanses to towering, timeless peaks. For many, these ethereal experiences represent brief, but profound escapes from daily routines. The pace of geological change suggests a sense of permanence, yet these environments are the barometers of human impact, and the alarms are sounding. So how do enterprises who use them to generate revenue, ensure they can be sustained for future generations?

False dawns

There has been much fanfare over recent years as solar arrays appeared in ski areas, responses to the issue of climate change. Statements of the future and signifiers of action, these highly visible installations were welcome developments, yet they don’t seem to have caught on. Ski resorts are responding with campaigns to change consumer behaviour, whilst some ski operations are powered by 100% renewable energy. But few ski areas can claim a truly joined-up approach to sustainability.

Simple physics

Yet there are installations in the mountains which are visionary and offer meaningful change in the fight to secure the future of these cherished peaks. The Voss Gondola, an hour or so east of Bergen in Norway is arguably the greenest ski lift on the planet. The state-of-the-art gondola came into service in 2019 with a remarkable ability to generate power when downloading passengers. The highly calibrated engineering allows for the force of gravity (minus losses due to friction) to be harnessed for electricity generation. The simple equation is that when more passengers are returning to the resort than leaving it (typically during the afternoon), then the generated green power is fed back into the power grid. With no natural ski piste below the path of the gondola, many visitors download to the resort this way and in doing so, they are directly generating renewable power. The Penkenbahn in Mayrhofen would be another example of where visitor flows would allow such a power generation. Regrettably, the lightbulb moment occurred in Norway, a few years after the huge redevelopment of the main Mayrhofen lift.

No gimmicks

But the Voss gondola is far more than power generation during afternoon downloading. The lift, Voss resort and region are all powered by local hydroelectric schemes, so the energy used to transport the people (who essentially become power-generating afternoon ballast) is totally renewable. Whilst Norway has the highest per capita use of electric vehicles in the world, that didn’t stop the planners from going further and linking the gondola to the mainline train station platform. So, for guests coming from Oslo or Bergen (or intermediate stops), the gondola is located just a few steps away from the train carriages. The physical footprint of the Voss Gondola is as impressive as its carbon footprint - with just 3 lift pylons along its 2km length, the gondola has minimal impact on the mountainside beneath, both aesthetically and in terms of habitat damage.

Going further

Not all lift volume profiles could support this type of power generation. Yet, in a country with more than 98% of its electricity coming from renewable, green sources, there was less compelling reason to implement this project in Voss than in other sensitive mountain regions. Norwegian guests arriving by electric car would also be less damaging to the pristine nature in western Norway. But that isn’t the mindset in this part of the world – the visitor experience is enhanced when they arrive by mainline train and walk a few paces before skimming the resort and mountains in the Voss Gondola. The renewable electricity that is saved by travelling on public train and generated in downloading on the gondola is used nationally as well as being available for export. One state-of-the-art ski lift isn’t going to save the save the world, but many of them could make a difference.

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