Photo: Mark Stevens
When I cranked those last few pedal strokes that brought me to the summit of the 6,646-foot Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, renewable energy was the last thing on my mind. I was drenched — from the rain, my sweat and the thick layer of fog blanketing the mountain. I had lost feeling in my fingertips miles ago and the only thing on my mind was lunch.
But renewable energy was the reason I was here in the first place. I was participating in a fundraiser for Glacier National Park Conservancy organized by the nonprofit Climate Ride. Participants had to raise $3,000 (or more) and cycle upwards of 250 miles through the park in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. Our fundraising would support renewable energy projects at Logan Pass, one of the most visited spots at Glacier at the top of Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road is somewhat of a rite of passage for the more than two million visitors who visit Glacier each summer. The narrow road bisects the park as it winds its way up to Logan Pass, offering sweeping views around each bend. Atop Logan Pass sits the visitor’s center, where thousands of visitors flock each day to hike one of the nearby trails or just to admire the views.
The visitor center is not connected to the electrical grid, and although solar panels supply some of its electricity, it also relies on an internal combustion engine-drive generator that can burn as much as 2,500 gallons of propane per year.
In the summer, surplus solar energy generated from the Logan Pass panels charge a battery, but those typically do not last through February. Last winter the conditions were so harsh that the batteries not only lost their charge but froze, Jim Foster, chief of facility management at Glacier, told Planet Experts.
Now, the park is looking to install new, more robust batteries, as well as propane-powered fuel cells with 500 watts of capacity — enough to keep the batteries, radio, webcam and weather station charged throughout the winter. Solar panels with around 3,600 watts of capacity will be moved from the portable trailer, which brings them up to Logan Pass in the summer and down in fall, to a permanent location on top of the new cement building that houses vault toilets.
The solar panel and battery combination should essentially eliminate propane usage in the summer, while the fuel cells should cut the amount of propane used in the winter to between 500 and 800 gallons from 2,500 gallons.
Bringing renewable energy to Logan Pass has had numerous challenges, due to its remote location and extreme environment. As I experienced — with temperatures down to 37 degrees, covered in thick wet fog and driving rain — the place can be downright inhospitable. And that was July. In the winter, the snow can pile so high as to completely bury the vault toilet outside the visitor’s center, and the winds are so strong that come spring, the rangers often find that the anemometer, which is supposed to measure wind speed, has been blown away. “We’ve never been able to record our highest wind speeds,” Foster said. “There’s extreme weather up there in the winter.”
Greg Olson, a board member of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, said that the park is also looking to install renewable energy in other remote off-the-grid locations that rely on generators, like the North Fork Ranger Station.
“We want the park to be a model for other parks when it comes to sustainability,” said Olson. Glacier is seen as a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to climate change, he added. The impacts of climate change are visible here. The number of large glaciers in the park has dropped from around 150 when the park was first established in 1910 to 25 today. Scientists predict they will all be gone by 2030.
Due to its relatively low elevation — between about 3,000 and 6,000 feet — many other impacts of climate change that other national parks face like, loss of alpine forests, warmer summers and an increase in fires, are being felt in Glacier first.
By doing what it can to limit its own carbon emissions, the hope is that other national parks will follow suit, and hopefully make a dent in combatting climate change.