Sustainability at ski areas
Chris Diamond and other resort executives discuss sustainability practices at ski areas.
Chris Diamond, president of Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., acknowledges the renewable energy credits used at Steamboat Ski Area have uncertain impacts.
"It looked a little bogus to me," Diamond said of deals struck to purchase credits, or carbon offsets, for the Burgess Creek and Sunshine Express lifts. "The measuring protocol wasn't in place. I'd like to be able to do all the mountain lift operations with renewables, but until we have a better understanding : we're hesitant."
But the credits are just a part of widespread environmental conservation efforts made by Ski Corp., Diamond said. In addition to long-held recycling efforts across the ski area - which has recycled more than 145 tons of materials in the past year - Ski Corp. employees have donated nearly $140,000 in four years to a voluntary environmental fund. The fund has contributed to local groups and initiatives such as Yampatika, the Yampa Valley Land Trust, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the Community Agriculture Alliance.
And since 1985, Ski Corp. has given a total of more than $1.6 million in annual contributions to community programs administered by the city of Steamboat Springs.
Diamond said demographic surveys have consistently shown Steamboat Ski Area guests are concerned with sustainability efforts.
"We have a very environmentally conscious and savvy audience," Diamond said. "It's an important message that our guests want to hear. But it's not just self-serving."
Renewable credits will also be used to power the ski area's new Christie Peak Express lift, which is scheduled for installation by the upcoming winter season.
"The most important thing is you're increasing demand for renewable energy," Diamond said of credit purchases. "There's no downside to that."
In June, Aspen Skiing Co. announced the installation of a 10.6-kilowatt photovoltaic system on the company's Thunder River Lodge affordable housing complex in Carbondale.
The system will generate about 15,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, keeping 27,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air and covering about a third of the building's electricity use, Aspen ski officials said. The lodge houses up to 45 company employees in 23 units.
"We chose the Carbondale location because it was one of the best sites for solar in the valley," said Auden Schendler, the company's executive director of community and environmental responsibility. "The pitch of the roof and its orientation are perfect."
So is the message.
By installing what the company called "the largest solar photovoltaic array in the ski industry," Aspen Skiing Co. continued a growing trend among ski resorts to support renewable energy sources and improve conservation efforts.
But the trend is not only about helping the environment and combating global warming - it's also about money and marketing.
Ash or credit?
It's an inconvenient truth that few ski resorts are actually building or installing facilities that generate electricity from renewable sources. Instead, many ski resort owners and operators are buying renewable energy credits, also known as "carbon offsets."
Carbon offsets are credits purchased from energy brokers or utility companies that supposedly compensate for emissions produced by traditional power sources such as coal. Money from the credits, according to REC sellers, is then used to further renewable energy development and research.
The sale of carbon offsets is estimated to be a $100 million industry.
But buying them doesn't require ski resorts to change how they operate. And their impact on the energy market is largely unregulated.
"Eager to be part of the solution to global warming, many consumers, businesses and government agencies have turned to carbon pollution offsets to help reduce or eliminate their carbon footprint," said Eben Burnham-Snyder, spokesman for the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "While these offsets represent a promising way to engage consumers in global warming solutions, there are many unanswered questions as to the efficacy and accounting of these unregulated commodities."
A climate researcher used simpler words in March.
"We cannot solve the climate crisis by buying offsets and claiming to be climate-neutral," Anja S. Kollmuss, outreach coordinator of the Tufts Climate Initiative affiliated with Tufts University, told BusinessWeek. "Nature does not fall for accounting schemes."
What you pay for
Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and Speaker of the House of Representatives, formed the House's global warming committee earlier this year to address U.S. dependence on foreign oil and the impact of climate change on ecosystems and economies across the planet.
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is chairman of the committee. After a July 18 hearing about carbon offsets, Markey sent a letter to Chairman Platt Majoras of the Federal Trade Commission. Markey requested guidelines be established to ensure carbon offsets are "productive commodities, both for consumers and the climate."
Burnham-Snyder said the letter asks the Federal Trade Commission to evaluate the existing guidelines for the marketing of environmentally friendly products to consumers, and to look for additional ways to apply those guidelines to the growing carbon offset market.
"Consumers who buy carbon offsets are doing so because they want to be part of the solution," Markey said. "We need to make sure these responsible consumers are getting what they pay for."
Leading the way
Vail Resorts is the second-largest corporate purchaser of carbon offsets in the U.S.
In August 2006, Vail Resorts announced its commitment to offset 100 percent of energy use with wind power credits that account for the 152,000 megawatt-hours used annually at the company's five resorts - Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly in California - in addition to the company's lodging properties, 125 retail locations and corporate headquarters in Broomfield.
Last winter, Vail offered a "Ski With the Wind" promotion that, through a partnership with a Boulder renewable energy company, offered a free one-day lift ticket to customers who signed up for a year of wind power credits in their homes.
"We want to reinforce our commitment to the natural environment in which we operate and be a leader on this critical effort within the travel industry," said Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts. The company has annual revenues of more than $776 million.
The Big Belly
Luke Cartin, environmental manager at Vail Ski Resort, is a tall man with a shaved head who talks with a booming, energetic voice and looks like he could fly down a mountain on a pair of skis.
At the annual Colorado Renewable Energy Conference, held June 9 and 10 in Steamboat, Cartin said 59 ski resorts in 16 states purchase renewable energy credits. Twenty-eight of those resorts are "100 percent green," Cartin said.
The first resort to use 100 percent renewable power credits was the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in Norden, Calif., near Lake Tahoe, Cartin said.
"I like to give credit where it's due," he noted.
Locally, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. uses wind and solar energy credits to power the Sunshine Express Lift at Steamboat Ski Area, and the Burgess Creek Lift is powered solely by wind energy credits. The Steamboat Ski Area offsets 3 percent of its total electricity with renewable energy credits.
But energy conservation in the ski industry is about far more than carbon offsets.
Cartin said Vail Ski Resort is home to the world's first photovoltaic trash compactor, a solar-powered unit nicknamed "The Big Belly" that is displayed at the resort's gondola this summer. Cartin said the compactor was emptied only three times last winter.
And at Vail and most resorts along the Interstate 70 corridor, the primary environmental concern is traffic, not electricity.
Cartin plugged a carpooling Web site, www.skicarpool.com, as a way to reduce congestion on the interstate and avoid long-discussed alternatives such as adding lanes to I-70.
"I view it as adding lanes is just delaying the problem," Cartin said, noting that a social shift will have to occur before traffic problems are really solved.
"Most people don't care - people really like their convenience," he said.
And even small resorts are finding ways to install renewable energy.
Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in western Massachusetts, for example, will soon use power from a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine. Blades on the turbine, dubbed "Zephyr," were installed July 12.
From the ground up
Copper Mountain began a program in November 2006 that asks overnight guests at the resort to contribute $1 per night to local conservation efforts.
"The Ski Area Contribution Program allows Copper to generate funds for our National Forest lands while educating guests on the importance of stewardship," said Jen Schenk, Copper's environmental manager.
"You're getting guests to give back to the land they're enjoying," echoed Lauren Pelletrau, public relations manager for Intrawest Colorado. Pelletrau works at Copper for Intrawest, which also owns Winter Park and - along with Fortress Investments - purchased Steamboat Ski Area in March for $265 million.
Pelletrau said Copper also is working with local environmental groups, the National Forest Foundation, the United States Forest Service and homeowner associations to spur conservation efforts throughout the resort.
"It goes back to figuring out how we can truly have an impact," she said. "We're going to do what we can to preserve our resources."
In 2006, Copper published its first environmental report, a publication it plans to continue annually, and announced intentions to offset 100 percent of the energy use on the mountain with renewable energy credits purchased from power companies. The credits will account for 20,000 megawatt-hours of wind power.
Copper also is taking a ground-up approach to conservation, with methods such as changing to more efficient snowmobile gas and encouraging recycling.
"We're trying to do things that we feel can be executed," Pelletrau said. "A year and a half ago, there was not a recycling opportunity next to every trash can."