North Tahoe/Truckee Loses Speed Skier Jeff Hamilton

By Carolyn Hamilton

On Jan. 10, a few hours before dawn, Jeff Hamilton died of pancreatic cancer. He was enveloped in his family, who, for hours, had whispered songs and told him stories of how much they loved him and how well he lived his life. At 4 a.m. the rain turned to snow. It was a twirling kind of snowfall; part rise, part fall. Jeff would never attribute this to any divine power, but I will admit for him, it was a good atmospheric line to conclude the gorgeous story of his life.

Before he died, I asked Jeff what he wanted in his obituary. He said, “Just tell a story.”

The man who was to become the fastest skier in the world and the fastest skier in America for a number of years was born in Auburn, California to Mary Ann Hamilton and Dick Hamilton on Nov. 22, 1966. My goodness, they were waiting for him, that sweet little boy who would ignite their lives and feed them full of love. A week before he died, Mary Ann said to Jeff, “Thank you for choosing me, Jeffrey.” And he responded, “Thank you for choosing me.”

Jeff grew up loved and free. He was a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” gripping her leg, helping her cook, tackling her, yelling “Sistrunkkkk!” as his warning. He gardened for fun, raked for nickels, and roamed the canyon until dinner time. He shot birds with a BB gun in the backyard because he liked a good aim; and he made comments at church that made his mother laugh out loud.

But Jeff was just as happy being still. He read encyclopedias on the floor for hours, studied and memorized the Guinness Book of World Records, spent afternoons watching Hogan’s Heroes with his grandma, Mary Katich, and, if lost, could be found tucking quietly in his bedroom, inspired by a speed ski race he saw at Squaw Valley U.S.A. (now Palisades Tahoe).

ASPEN ENGAGEMENT: Hamilton takes in the view of the Rocky Mountains during his engagement to Carolyn in 1998. Courtesy photo

Mary Beth, his little sister, arrived when he was three years old. From the time she could crawl, she followed him around. She wanted to dress like him, rolling her bathing suit down to match his speedo; and when she wore what he wore to school, he didn’t make her change, he just raced back home from the bus stop to change his own clothes. He took on the role of big brother with playful seriousness, just as he took on all the endeavors of his life. Years later, Jeff invited Mary Beth to join him on the speed ski tour and dialed her in for racing — he let her wear his suit and ride his best skis.

ADVENTURE: When growing up in Auburn, California, Hamilton’s family vacationed by camper all over the western states. Courtesy photo

Dick prioritized family, so Jeff’s family foursome road-tripped. In their camper, they fished their way through the West, and clammed with friends at Dillon Beach; they also spent summers hiking to the Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camps. And in the winter, they downhill skied. Nobody loved skiing like Dick Hamilton, and he siphoned that passion right into his kids, and did the work to support it, driving the Vista Cruiser to Park City, Utah, driving them to ski team at Boreal Mountain every weekend, and mixing waxes for faster skiing for Western States races all the way through to Jeff’s races on the Speed Skiing World Tour.

Last year, between chemo sessions, on a road trip to Yosemite, I asked Jeff, “Do you think road trips are a suspension of everything else?” And he said, “No, I think they’re not a metaphor for life—it’s just me getting in my car, my bubble, and seeing places, finding new things and maybe a chance to be nostalgic.”

Before Jeff was known for his Olympic bronze medal and his world record in speed skiing, he was known for tucking top to bottom as a kid at Boreal, never finishing a slalom race (way too many turns); refusing hot chocolate during a storm so he could keep skiing; being the smallest kid to keep up with the Harrison boys (the neighbors); perfecting his moon drop; winning the Constitution competition at EV Cain Middle School; and making films with his high school buddies before making films was a thing.

When it was time to move out, Jeff attended St Mary’s College as an English major where he engaged in “Thought” seminars, wrote poetry, and found friends with whom he’d spend the next many years of his life traveling, skiing, hiking, and growing families. During summer breaks, he worked at the Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camps of Yosemite. Jeff described spending his High Camp days off on Cloud’s Rest by himself because it was the biggest mountain around. And when I asked him if his time in Yosemite made him, he said, with his characteristic lack of drama, “I think it just added to the tapestry.”

GOING…FAST! In 1995, Hamilton set the world record with a speed of 150.028 mph on downhill skis. Courtesy photo

Speed skiing added to the tapestry, too. He was living at his family’s cabin at Donner Lake, in the early ’90s, when he just decided to try a speed ski race at Kirkwood ski resort with borrowed gear. Within seven races, he won the bronze medal at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France.

TUCKED FOR SPEED: In 1992, when speed skiing was a demonstration sport in the 1992 Albertville, France, Olympic Games, skier Jeff Hamilton muscled a long-practiced tuck to the finish-line to win a thrilling third place bronze medal. Courtesy photo

Before long, he became the first man to ski 150 mph; he still “rents” (as he liked to say) the record, “world’s fastest crash” (151mph); he won four speed skiing world titles. One of his projects during his year living with cancer was to ensure there was an archive of his speed skiing life. Jeffhamiltonspeedskier.com is a beautiful documentation of a special time in Jeff’s life.

The man was fast, but he was never hurried or harried. He loved springtime in France. He loved his friends from around the world. He loved winning. He loved the one afternoon he suggested that he hold the film camera for Warren Miller Productions and skied beside his friend the legendary speed skier “Curly” as she tucked down the track; he wanted to give audiences the sensation of speed. He loved studying his equipment and finding ways to be faster. And, graciously, he took me along for most of it. A man at the top of his game, inviting his girlfriend, then wife, to share in the fun.

I will humbly insert into the story here that we were a good team. Jeff and I met in August of 1992 and married on Oct. 17, 1998. Throughout our lives, we toured Europe together, read books together, wrote a children’s book together, made olive oil together, edited each other’s writing, worked hard together, raised a family together, dreamed big together. He told me before he died, “I expanded your world, Carolina; and you focused and warmed mine. We dominated this life, and we dominated this love.” I will always know our love story was the thread that ran through all the other stories since we met.

Jeff was “always stinking,” which was Jeff’s funny way of saying, “always thinking.” He was an idea man. He could see what was not there. And, with precision, creativity, and joy, he could create so many things into being. With his friend, fellow speed skier, and wax tech Bill Miller, he opened Hamilton Sports in 1997. Who opens a ski shop at the base of Aspen Mountain, one snowball’s throw away from about eight other successful shops? Jeff Hamilton. He went all in. In Aspen, he worked hard, planned well, made friends, and succeeded. His ideas were endless, all the way down to using his sister’s reclaimed piers for planter boxes and suggesting a provocative plot twist in a story I was stuck writing.

In the spring of 1999 when he was in France on tour, Jeff learned he would be a father. Eleanore was born in Aspen, Colorado on Dec. 5, and two years later, on Jan. 17, 2002, Frances was born. And, accordingly, Jeff was born twice into his favorite role in the world: “Daddy-O.”

THE HAMILTONS welcomed two daughters into the world, Eleanore, right, in 1999 and Frances in 2002.

He brought commitment and fun to fatherhood. He and those girls played — all of the time. Everything was an opportunity for some serious fun. They made funny videos, sculpted snow horses and sand mermaids, built outdoor showers, backpacked in Yosemite, clasped catfish to their fingertips and crawdads to their earlobes. They hunted frogs way after bedtime, and Jeff hung ropes from the living room ceiling so his girls could gear up and collide into each other for fun. With Frances as an eager victim and Eleanore as his assistant, Jeff even made losing teeth fun. They shot videos of extractions that featured string, a dog, a ball, matches, some fire, more string, and a pulley.

Jeff was innovative and confident. He knew there was always a way to do anything. He designed and built our first home at Donner Lake. I will not forget standing with both babies in my arms, watching him do electrical and plumbing with “How to Wire Your House” and “How to Plumb Your House” books opened to the appropriate page beside him. All smiles. All curiosity. All determination.

All our lives, I never doubted the leak would be stopped, the road found, the soup more flavorful, the day funnier, the life more wonderful. He was that good. And he was this nice: when I suggested we homeschool our girls, he said yes with one caveat: “as long as we don’t close any doors for them.” And so we began homeschooling, and he jumped into his role as science teacher and math teacher and art teacher and shop teacher and geography teacher, all to be sure we didn’t close doors on our girls. Not a chance, Jeff Hamilton: You flung their doors wide open.

In 2009 as the world reverberated from its economic turn, Jeff led us out of the third home he built and all the way to France. He closed real estate deals over Skype while also inventing ways to play. He created scavenger hunts through our adopted medieval town of Uzes, made friends with locals, shopped the Saturday markets with an eye for the freshest cheeses, the spiciest olives, and maybe a slicer-dicer for his girls to make funny shapes out of vegetables. He summited Mont Ventoux on his bike . . .  twice. He made fresh croissants…in France. Repeat. He made homemade croissants in France. Once upon a time, he thought he might become a sommelier, so the wine he chose for us was delicious.

Travel had just begun for us, and through the years, we explored China and Italy and Norway and Scotland, Mexico, Costa Rica, New York, D.C., a transcontinental train ride, Dillon Beach, and our very favorite place in the whole wide world, Evelyn Lake in Yosemite where he and Frances caught trout for dinner and Eleanore and he ate it.

As his girls grew, they transitioned from Alpine skiers to Nordic skiers. Jeff went from showing them how to tuck and go, how to carve a good turn and hike a good peak, to watching them double-pole and trying it out himself behind them at Auburn Ski Club or on Van Norden Meadow. It made “the leader” so happy to follow his girls.

FAMILY OUTINGS: Hamilton and his family, including daughters Eleanore, middle, and Frances, right, explored some of California’s remote regions, including the Lost Coast. Courtesy photo

Yes, he explored becoming an attorney or working for the foreign service, but Jeff poured his professional commitment into real estate. Ask his clients, who became his friends: Jeff was honest, smart, committed, visionary, and so damn nice. He was one of the first agents in Tahoe to join Sierra International Realty, the local Sotheby’s company, and was instrumental in a leadership role and as the top agent in building the firm into one of the area’s top brokerages with seven Tahoe and Reno offices.

The most rewarding time in his real estate career was spent with his partner, Breck Overall, in their top-producing partnership, Overall & Hamilton. Jeff loved Breck, whom he said inspired him, was so smart, and was simply a very good person. Jeff was committed to community service, as well, serving as a board member of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, Sugar Bowl Ski Team and Academy, and most passionately, as the board president of Auburn Ski Club. He cherished the idea of giving foothill kids the chance to play in the mountains.

Ever a follower of “shiny things,” Jeff was electrifyingly curious. His interest in what could unfold guided him deeper into life’s experiences. He founded the Old 40 Cycling Club; hosted pre-Truckee Thursday gatherings in our backyard, where he poured his own simple syrup into his signature mojitos. He trained for and finished the Death Ride® and did color commentary for the first X Games with Bob Beattie. With Frances, he cranked the volume in the car, drummed the steering wheel, and sang loudly to Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Jane’s Addiction, and of course the Go Go’s.

SEALED: Hamilton and his wife, Carolyn, enjoyed Truckee, their family, and each other. Courtesy photo

He could deliver a fierce crosscourt forehand, but always hit the ball to me to keep the rallies going; he played twilight golf, pointing out the coyotes nibbling pine nuts on the greens; he entered into crossword and eventually Wordle and Spelling Bee competitions with Eleanore; he fished in the backyard, hiked up warm granite after dinner, and stopped to marvel at the junipers. He loved all of the big, majestic trees, but junipers struck him: “They are resilient, ragged, imperfect, strong, beautiful, and twisted,” he’d say. Like someone else I know.

On the day his father died in December, last year, Jeff was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. All of his adult life he harbored a gentle jealousy of women because they could experience childbirth and he could not; and dazzlingly, that hunger for experience extended to cancer. He wanted to experience this time with openness and commitment. The year was hard. He experienced a Whipple, which is arguably the most punishing surgery performed; all in all, he lost his gallbladder, spleen, 1/3 of his small intestine, his entire pancreas, and became a new Type 1 diabetic. Diabetes advisors adored him because he asked questions and wanted to master the chemistry of glucose and insulin. Doctors marveled because he withstood three chemotherapy protocols and four bouts of sepsis, and, still, in the late afternoons, before dinner, he could be found on his trainer, spinning, watching a legendary bike race like Paris–Roubaix and lifting weights, willing himself to retain muscle against this muscle-hungry cancer. His oncologist, Dr. Thomas Semrad, told me he was, “extraordinary”.

Jeff was never angry about having cancer. He never threw an expletive at cancer, and he rejected the metaphors “battle” and “fight.” He saw his time on the court of life with cancer as a competition. Accordingly, he applied laser focus, commitment, openness to the point at hand; and a resolve to move forward to the next point if he lost the last. Upon diagnosis, Jeff assured each medical advisor that he was game to do all procedures and chemotherapy regimens, but let it be known he would be on a plane on June 9 to witness Eleanore graduate from the University of St Andrews. Point Hamilton: less than two months after his Whipple he was celebrating Eleanore and even played a round on his beloved Old Course.

DESPITE setbacks from his pancreatic cancer treatments, in spring of 2022, Hamilton joined extended family members in Scotland to celebrate the graduation of Eleanore, left, from the University of St. Andrews.

For as dazzling as Jeff was, he really did not love being the center of attention. So, he never talked about himself, nor much about cancer. As his body suffered, and his world contracted, as he lost 50 pounds, had his port continually accessed, had his abdomen drained of liters of fluid every four days; as his ability to eat and digest caved, as it became impossible to drive because of the pain it caused his abdomen, as his fingers numbed and toes cramped, Jeff never complained. There was one time he said, “I wish it were a little easier.” That is it.

Instead of complaining, he initiated morning walks and night walks around downtown Truckee with all of us, trips to the ocean, trips to Sebastopol, a trip back to Aspen, and trips to his childhood home to Auburn for some warmer air. He ate bowls of his mom’s homemade tapioca.

He called his pain spikes “cramps.” And he always made sure I knew when he felt good. “I feel goooood, Carolina.” A little gift to me who worried and fussed and wished him no pain. He worked hard in the last months of his life on a project we all named the Jeff Hamilton Legacy Fund, which was ambitious, of course. Jeff might have been subtle, but he was an ambitious man. He wanted to give MacArthur-style awards to community members for their limitlessness in six categories. In developing this fund, he gave his little foursome the opportunity to talk about his death, dream about his legacy, and recommit to contributing to the community and the future. Please see jeffhamiltonlegacyfund.com for more information.

For one blessed year, Jeff led us through Cancerworld with love and presence and honesty. He initiated hard conversations about death and dying, and followed them through with embraces and transparent, humble wishes for being a grandpa, seeing us all evolve, watching us live, taking care of his mom and the next generation, having more fun. “I want three more chapters,” he said.

But the loving person he was, he did not leave us with only his wishes. He told us over and over again, astonishingly, that he loved this last year. He loved how much love there was. He loved the way we all met the challenges and did not run away. He loved his life.

His instructions for us were clear. “Have fun!” So on the third night without him, we pulled out a deck of cards, we watched ourselves laugh, and we got dressed warmly and walked out into the swirling snow, doing without him what he loved doing with us — taking a little night walk, enveloped in each other.

Jeff will continue to inspire his wife Carolyn; his daughters, Eleanore and Frances; his mother, Mary Ann; his sister, Mary Beth; his brother-in-law Scott; his aunt and all of his cousins and second cousins; and all of those impacted by the Jeff Hamilton Legacy Fund. A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 22, at Olympic Village Inn.

Kindergarteners [in the Woods]

By Megan Michelson

The kindergarteners are sliding down a sheer, snow-pillowed boulder into a field of freshly fallen powder, as echoes of their laughter fill the forest. Clad in bright-colored insulated clothes, they’re all chiming in with wonder at the natural slide they’ve just created. When one boy finds his foot stuck in the deep, frozen muddle, a friend comes over to help dig him out. They call it friend patrol.

It’s a Wednesday in early November and several feet of snow from an overnight storm have buried the students’ outdoor classroom. They are among 234 pupils attending the free, independent Creekside Charter School in Olympic Valley, which serves pre-kindergarteners through eighth grade. Most of their fellow Creekside students are taking their classes indoors. These kindergarteners — between the ages of 5 and 6? They spend the entire day outdoors. Every day.

For about 45 minutes, the kids have been playing freely in the woods, supervised yet undirected. Kindergarten teacher Theresa Anderson and her teacher’s aide, Kristina McCarthy, are nearby, but the students are free to roam and explore within a given range. Activities like tree climbing and rock jumping are fine as long as they’re within the realms of safety. Mostly, the kids are encouraged to play, create, work together, and let their imaginations and nature chart their course.

STUDENTS WALKING to their outdoor classroom at Olympic Valley’s Creekside Charter School sometimes trek through waist-high snow. Photos by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

Learning outdoors

This is forest kindergarten, Tahoe style. The 20 students in the class spend all school year outdoors in a makeshift classroom set in the woods near Olympic Valley’s Granite Chief trail, about a tenth of a mile from their campus. To reach the classroom — which is made up of a few stumps in a circle — in the winter, the kids trudge uphill, often through waist-deep snow, carrying backpacks loaded with lunch, spare gloves, and extra layers. “This is a good place to begin to develop that mindset of ‘I can do hard things,’” Anderson says.

Creekside’s forest kindergarten program is in its third year. It was first spearheaded by Anderson in the fall of 2020 in the midst of the Covid pandemic. The move to an outdoor classroom happened to coincide with a growing national trend, accelerated by the pandemic, to move classroom settings outdoors, where the benefits for kids’ development run the gamut from improved social skills to increased creativity and self-confidence to a stronger connection with nature.

Anderson, who’s taught kindergarten at Creekside for 12 years now, was getting her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction when she began researching forest kindergarten programs around the country and found herself drawn to the many benefits of schooling young children outdoors.

TEAM EFFORT: Creekside Charter School kindergarteners work together to unbury their classroom after an overnight storm. Shovels are passed around and digging is a team effort. Under the snow is a white board and a bin full of school supplies.

“I was reading about the need for play, the need to be outside, the need to direct their own learning through play,” Anderson says. “Before this program, I was giving kids 15 minutes here or there to play, but in that timeframe, they don’t have the time to develop their games and scenarios and creativity and work out the problems that arise.” Knowing a wilderness setting surrounded the school and she was at a charter school that supports creative thinking, she approached Creekside’s principal, Jeff Kraunz, who was on board.

“We try to support the autonomy of teachers, whether it’s through their curriculum or the ideas they have,” Kraunz explains. “Theresa said, ‘I’d really like to pilot an outdoor classroom.’ I said, ‘Great.’ That was in the works even before the pandemic and just coincidentally had really great timing.”

In the fall of 2020, when every school in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District was on remote or hybrid learning schedules due to the Covid pandemic, Creekside opened for in-person learning and the kindergarteners ventured out to their forest classroom.

“My approach the first year was, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Anderson says. “I didn’t have any expectation that we would not come inside at all. The object isn’t to torture anyone.” With proper gear and warm clothing, the kids did great outdoors all winter long. (Admittedly, the program isn’t for everyone; but in the two full school years they’ve run the program, only one child has left because it wasn’t a good fit.)

“That first year, we all acknowledged that we were going into this as a trial and would pivot if needed,” says Sara Satinsky, whose son was in that first class in 2020. “For my son, having the space to play and learn without walls around them gave him a great sense of independence. He got to learn with sticks and rocks and snowballs and a teacher who said, ‘These are our boundaries, and we trust you to be responsible,’ while teaching what that meant.”

During the past couple of years, Anderson has dialed in her classroom setup, fine-tuning the toilet tent (the kids use a pee tree and a wag-bag system inside a tent) and the classroom supplies, like a weather-resistant whiteboard and waterproof tubs full of notebooks and pencils that need to be dug up after storms. If families can’t afford proper snow gear for their kids, the school’s parent-teacher organization has donations of warm coats, boots, and gloves available.

LOTTERY: Twenty kids are enrolled in the kindergarten program this year at Creekside Charter School. There is a competitive lottery system to get into the program, which includes kindergarten through eighth grade.

Origins in Europe

Forest kindergarten began in Germany decades ago, in a program called waldkindergarten. Similar programs have existed in the U.S. for about 15 years, but recently, we’ve seen a big spike in this style of learning. The number of forest kindergarten and outdoor preschools in the U.S. more than doubled between 2017 and 2020, according to the Natural Start Alliance, which estimated there were over 580 programs around the U.S. in 2020, with every state having at least one program and California, Oregon, and Washington, among others, offering dozens.

The pandemic turned even more schools on to the idea of moving classrooms outdoors, where the spread of the virus was less likely in fresh-air settings.

That has also coincided with a shift in the approach to kindergarten curriculum, with a growing movement in some schools to reintroduce play-based learning. In years past, kindergarten was a chance for young children to adjust to their first school setting, with play and socialization being the priority over academics.

But a shift happened over the years, and kindergarten became much more rigorous, with 5- and 6-year-old kids being required to pass strict benchmarks in reading, writing, and math. A 2016 study conducted at the University of Virginia titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” compared kindergarten classes from 1998 to 2010, and found the classes had become more academically driven and less focused on self-directed exploration, social skills, and play.

Anderson says the kids who come through her program may not have as strong an academic foundation as those from other area schools, but that in kindergarten, this shouldn’t be the focus. “I’m hopeful that we’re building physical and mental stamina, so that even if they don’t know all the various academics, they’ve got confidence, they’re creative thinkers, they’re collaborators,” she says. “So that once they’re introduced to new concepts in first grade and beyond, they’re going to pick things up a lot quicker. Studies show that developing the whole child, having those play experiences, is going to set them up for success in the future.”

Parents weigh in

Some parents have chosen this program for those exact benefits. “My son is a very active type of boy,” says Liz Wilson, whose child is in this year’s class. “I wanted his experience at school to be one where he grows to love learning and being outdoors and not stuck in the classroom with worksheets.”

Wilson has been a school psychologist at Truckee High School and North Tahoe School and now works part-time as a counselor at Creekside Charter. She hopes the benefits of her son’s first year of school will last well into his older years. “Here, they have these long periods of play — like an hour and a half where there’s very unstructured play,” Wilson adds. “They just get to free-play with the other kids. That’s where a majority of their learning happens.”

Back in the forest classroom at Creekside on that snowy November morning, an exposure to the chilly air leads to a moment of learning. One boy’s hands are cold; he’s whimpering. Anderson asks for input from the other kids. “What’s a good way to solve this problem?” she asks. “Who can give ideas?”

Other children offer up suggestions: Put on dry gloves; move your hands around; go into the sun. The boy follows his peers’ advice and soon he’s back to happily playing in the snow.

Later, Anderson will explain that those moments of problem solving and teamwork are the real learning opportunities in an outdoor classroom. “It helps form a cohesive class. We do so much work with their social-emotional development that they seem a lot more resilient,” she says. “That’s partly due to the program, but also because this environment gives us those opportunities.”

Bear Tracks

BEAR TRACKS: Moonshine’s former staff photographer and continued contributor Wade Snider spotted this bulky bruin out for a stroll along Fifth Street in Tahoma on December 8. Connect with him for your photography needs at wade@wadesnider.com.

Liberty Utilities Doesn’t Own the Sun

By Peter Tucker

In 2019, when I approached Liberty Utilities to install solar, they denied permission — initially requiring I pay in advance for 12 months of electricity that the new array would produce. I screamed extortion into my pillow on more than one occasion. With new 30% solar tax incentives likely inspiring more customers to install panels, Liberty’s unscrupulous obstructionism toward solar customers is unacceptable.

After an ugly fight for close to a year before a judge at the California Public Utilities Commission, Liberty would ultimately settle the case, allow me to put in solar, and pay me thousands of dollars for the trouble, but not before a display of dishonesty and raw arrogance that spawned new pillow screams. Liberty even went so far as to strategically edit its own solar program guidelines before submitting them to the CPUC and got caught lying about it. The CPUC was well aware of their status as a bad actor, with CPUC attorney Jack Mulligan revealing to me in a phone call: “I’ve worked with Liberty before, and I don’t trust them.”

As part of the case’s settlement, Liberty had to temporarily adjust my net metering annual cycle. Net metering is the mechanism that allows solar customers to save unused solar electricity production as credits on their bill, to use later when the sun isn’t shining or panels are covered with snow. It is fundamental to allowing customers to best utilize their solar.

Importantly, Liberty doesn’t allow customers to adjust their 12-month net-metering period to best suit their particular seasonal production and usage needs, like most other utility companies in California do. Their net metering cycle is tied to the calendar year, meaning that if your account has any solar credits at the end of December, Liberty zeros out your bank of solar credits and pays you a paltry amount for each kilowatt hour credit left on your bill. When a solar customer’s bank of credits is wiped out come January, the shorter winter days and snow-covered panels means they are producing less electricity, and their bills increase substantially — during the exact time when many might use additional solar credits for heating. 

It is important to understand that customers’ unused solar production not only goes onto their bills as a kilowatt-hour credit, but in real time the actual electricity flows to the power grid to be used and sold to other Liberty customers, currently for about 17 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour. But, at the end of the year when zeroing out a solar credit bank, Liberty only pays solar customers about 3 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour. Despite Liberty’s accounting machinations, they can make up to a 500% profit on a customer’s solar credits.

More pillow screams.

Liberty’s mostly homogenous service area at altitude in the Tahoe Basin means that, like me, other customers will usually have unused solar credits in December. Matt Newberry, the solar program manager at Liberty and a main architect of its obstructionism in my previous case, has admitted that they send out many checks to solar customers each year for unused solar credits, and that it is “bad for business.”

Perhaps naively, I ask, why would a utility company obstruct customers’ ability to best utilize their solar? Even worse, why would Liberty pay out resources annually, for at least the last five years, that could instead be used for things like wildfire vegetation management, or — in the face of its recent rate hikes (up to 40% in some areas) — used for reducing electricity rates for customers? Why would Liberty continue a practice for years that it admits is “bad for business”?

Liberty has claimed that statutory rules prevent it from currently changing its net metering period for customers, a position utterly contradicted by what they already did unilaterally in the settlement of my case before the CPUC.

With new solar tax incentives topping 30%, California’s solar trajectory will continue. As more residents install solar, they should be able to utilize their investment in a way that is best for their own seasonal electricity production and usage, and thus the planet — not what is best for an unscrupulous utility provider. We deserve better than Liberty’s dishonesty and obstructionism.

~ Peter Tucker is a former board member of the Glenshire Devonshire Residents Association and current resident of Glenshire in Truckee.

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