Skiing Green

Sunny skies with a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s mild in the Teton Valley, where winters can be fierce, and so locals were probably thrilled to get a break from the relentless cold, right? Wrong.

You see, Alta, Wyoming, is home of Grand Targhee Resort, a ski area that attracts thousands of visitors every winter and helps sustain the community economically. If Grand Targhee were to shut its doors, says the resort’s director of sustainable opportunities Christina Thomure, 20% of the community would be out of a job. So in February and March, warm weather isn’t exactly what folks in Alta like to have. Granted, Grand Targhee hasn’t fared too poorly this season compared to some other resorts around the country. Ski areas in the Northeast suffered through a horrible early season, only to be saved when temperatures finally dropped in mid-January. But with the issue of global warming surfacing in the media practically on a daily basis, such balmy days spur concerns for the industry itself. Climatologists, of course, are quick to remind that when studying climate change, it is important to look at trends spanning years rather than fret over a mere string of warm days or a random mild season. Still, though, “[The warm weather] does make you think about global warming,” says Thomure. Those little reminders are causing the ski industry to act. With their entire business dependent on weather that’s cold and consistent, it’s no wonder that ski areas have emerged as one of the leading industries to confront global warming through the purchase of green power. Growing Commitment For several months leading up to the current ski season, it seemed that every other week a different ski resort was announcing a major green power purchase. One of the most significant of those announcements came last summer, when Vail Resorts, Inc. –operator of five major mountain properties — announced that it would offset 100% of its energy use by purchasing nearly 152 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of wind energy. That’s enough electricity not only for the five mountain resorts, but also Vail’s lodging properties including RockResorts and Grand Teton Lodge Co., all of its 125 retail locations (operated through Specialty Sports Venture), and its new corporate headquarters in Broomfield, Colo. By purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) equal to Vail’s entire electricity use, the company became the second largest purchaser of wind power of all corporations in the U.S. at the time, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To purchase the RECs, credits created when producers generate electricity using wind turbines, Vail is working with Boulder, Colorado-based Renewable Choice Energy as its wind power provider. The purchase, the company says, is the equivalent of cutting over 211 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions every year — the same as taking 18,000 cars off the road or planting over 27,000 acres of trees, according to EPA. “By embracing wind power as a clean and renewable source for 100% of our company-wide electricity use, 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 CEO Rob Katz. A commitment to the natural environment is a key issue for resorts, partially because the ski industry can have a significant impact on the environment, often developing previously pristine areas and cutting wide swaths through ecosystems for trails; such necessary machinery as ski lifts and snow makers, meanwhile, burn an awful lot of energy. Acknowledging those impacts perhaps more than it previously did, the industry is thinking about sustainability, both in terms of green energy as well as other environmental issues. Grand Targhee is one of 26 ski areas that now power 100% of their businesses with green energy. The resort clearly is serious about sustainability. It recently created a “Sustainability Charter,” which has spurred the installment of a 660-watt photovoltaic system for one of its buildings, the use of biodiesel to fuel shuttle buses and snow removal equipment, and a host of energy efficiency initiatives. To link its sustainability efforts into a comprehensive strategy, Grand Targhee created the director of sustainable opportunities position and hired Thomure earlier this year. Thomure is looking at literally all aspects of the resort’s operations to find ways to improve energy efficiency and enhance sustainability. The green power purchase came as a result of the Sustainability Charter. “We decided to go 100% [renewable energy] because it was something we could do very easily,” she says. Industry Leadership The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has been thinking about global warming for quite some time, adopting its Climate Change Policy as far back as 2002. The renewable energy purchases are in part driven by an industry program spearheaded by NSAA; in fact, the name of the initiative says a lot about what’s motivating the business: Keep Winter Cool, it’s called. NSAA’s Green Power Program, which falls under the umbrella of the Keep Winter Cool and Sustainable Slopes initiatives, was launched in an effort to grow the number of ski resorts and ski industry supplier companies buying green power for their operations. As of February 20, 55 resorts in 14 states were buying renewable energy to offset all or part of their operational energy use. In addition, NSAA, the National Ski Patrol, the Professional Ski Instructors of America, and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, are all offsetting 100% of their electricity use, as are NSAA supplier members BEWI Productions, Inc., of Waltham, Mass., and Woodbury, Ct.-based Ski Area Management. For the ski industry, global warming was a natural issue to take on. “We basically took one out of 21 [environmental issues identified], and said, ‘Let’s focus on this,'” says Geraldine Link, NSAA Director of Public Policy. Good Business Grand Targhee buys its RECs through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), a nonprofit organization that uses revenues from REC sales to fund new renewable energy projects. BEF has seen such a great business opportunity in working with the ski industry that it created the Ski Green program to work exclusively with the industry. “We found a good audience in the ski industry,” says BEF Director of Sales Patrick Nye. Both the industry and the green power movement stand to gain from the trend. For one thing, the ski resorts’ customers are in many ways the perfect audience for the renewable energy message. According to Link, that audience consists of 15 million skiers and snowboarders — who tend to share an appreciation for the earth’s natural resources — making a total of 58.9 million visits to ski areas each year. “We are really a natural for educating people about green energy because that’s why people are out there,” says Link. Carl Levesque is the Communications Editor at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). This article first appeared in the AWEA Windletter and was reprinted with permission from AWEA.
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