STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Phillip Gotthelf felt like the belle of the ball at the recent National Ski Areas Association rally at Steamboat Springs. As hundreds of attendees skied under Steamboat's new night-skiing lights, the managing director of Ultra-Tech relished soaring interest in his magnetic-induction Snow Bright lights.
"We certainly have done better in the popularity contest than we ever anticipated," said Gotthelf, a longtime ski instructor from the East Coast who counts Steamboat's installation of nearly 400 of the low-energy, low-glare but highly illuminating lights as the largest ever for his company.
Ultra-Tech is an 8-year-old company that got its start designing seaport lights that did not disturb migrating turtles near a conservatory. He said Ultra-Tech is the only "turtle-compliant" light-maker in the world. Since unveiling Snow Bright lights, with diffusion deflectors that keep the light from focusing on specific areas as much as glowing over snow, Ultra-Tech has been slowly selling its lights. The lights, which are sealed and transfer electrical current via a magnetic field, are dark-sky-compliant. Steamboat's installation, a $1.25 million job blanketing 1,100 vertical feet of slope, has turbocharged sales.
The appeal is threefold. First, the lights, which cast a sort of milky glow more than beam, limit light pollution that initially stirred opposition from slopeside residents at Steamboat. Second, the lights are only 300 watts and use much less energy than the 1,000-watt metal halides often used for night skiing. And third, for resorts switching out existing energy-burning lights, most utility companies will provide a rebate for the lights, which last 100,000 hours. (That compares with 1,500 to 10,000 hours for conventional lights.)
The company is in negotiations with Winter Park, Tremblant and other Intrawest ski resorts about installing the Snow Bright lights. For the resort operator, the idea is to stir nighttime activity in renovated base villages.
"We've made a tremendous investment in our base promenade and deck and bar. They are nice places to hang out. The problem was (that) after dark, everyone would disappear," said Doug Allen, vice president of operations at Steamboat. "The idea is to give folks something to do after the ski day. Just having that activity and having the mountain open at night, we are finding our guests really enjoy it."
Steamboat is using a third of the electricity it would use for conventional lights, Allen said. And you can stand on the lighted slope at night and see the lights of town and the stars.
"I think we have convinced our neighbors for the most part that the lighting works and isn't polluting the night sky," Allen said. "I think it has been well-received."
Steamboat invested more in the lights, but the payoff will come in energy savings and happy neighbors, Allen said.
Wyoming's Snowy Range Ski Area ranks as the first ski area to win approval for the lights after Forest Service review. (Steamboat's lights are on private land.) While there were few neighbor concerns about the Snowy Range lights, scientists at the University of Wyoming's observatory 20 miles to the south expressed some worry that the ski area's plan to light its tubing hill could disrupt studies of the night sky.
Since installing 21 lights in November for weekends at the small tubing operation, the ski area has not bothered the scientists, said owner Aaron Maddox. The glow was so low, the area had to install regular lights on its 300-foot footpath from the base lodge to the tubing hill.
"People think they are really cool," Maddox said. "The lights just aren't obnoxious."