Leading the way on climate change
January 4, 2014
— This is the second part in a three-part series about climate change as it relates to the ski industry.
Last May, 108 ski areas from around the country signed the Climate Declaration, calling upon federal policymakers to act on climate change.
"Ski area environmental programs have come a long way in 20 years, particularly in terms of their level of sophistication, demonstrated results, and their concerted focus on addressing climate change," said Geraldine Link, the public policy director for the National Ski Areas Association. "Signing the Climate Declaration is the next logical step for our members to get solutions to scale."
Those solutions have been slow going within Congress, leaving the ski industry and ski resort companies frustrated with a sense of responsibility to take whatever action they can as an industry.
The NSAA's Sustainable Slopes program is in its 13th year and more than 190 ski resorts have endorsed the Environmental Charter, meaning they've identified an environmental contact person and have taken steps toward improved environmental performance.
Many resort companies, especially heavy hitters like Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing Company, are taking environmentalism far beyond what's expected within the industry.
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Vail Resorts has added many jobs over the years to focus on environmental initiatives. Environmental responsibility has become one of the company's main messages to its customers and its employees.
Luke Cartin, the senior mountain environmental affairs manager for Vail Resorts, oversees a team of seven environmental managers. Sean Conboy, the corporate energy manager, oversees energy strategies and conservation efforts. Nicky DeFord is the company's senior manager of charitable contributions who also organizes company volunteer days, which often include environmental projects such as the Hayman Fire restoration, in which the company contributed $4 million and volunteers planted 1 million trees and seeded 17,000 acres.
Rick Cables, previously the head of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain region director, was hired for the company's newest environmental role this year: vice president of natural resources and conversation.
"There's been sort of a strategic shift in the last several years," Cables said. "It's [the company] being systematic about how we achieve conservation sustainability objectives."
Vail Resorts set a 10 percent energy reduction goal in 2008, but it was before the company had put a lot of thought into its strategies for energy use, Conboy said.
"It took a long time for us to do analysis of what energy we were using and figure out a baseline," he said. "Over the course of three years, we ended up working to educate employees, drive payroll changes and do small capital projects. … By the end of the 2011 fiscal year, we reduced electricity and natural gas use by 10.75 percent."
The company is now working on its next goal to save another 10 percent in 10 years. Just two years in, savings have already reached 4.7 percent, Conboy said.
Aspen Skiing Company has been doing a detailed energy analysis — the type of analysis Vail Resorts only initiated within the last few years — for more than a decade.
Aspen releases an annual sustainability report, which breaks down the company's carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption, including natural gas, water and fuel usage. In 2000, the company emitted 31,605 tons of carbon dioxide. Its lowest emissions year was 2003, with 28,725 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, while the highest year was 2006, with 32,676 tons.
Vail Resorts, a publicly traded company, doesn't release its emissions figures, but Conboy said the company's five energy-saving focus areas are lifts, facilities, snowmaking, grooming and restaurants. The company has invested more than $4 million in snowmaking efficiency upgrades alone in recent years, saving more than 6 million kilowatt hours per year.
One of the major upgrades happened at Breckenridge in 2012. The resort replaced 150 snow guns with lower energy guns that run more efficiently. The company reports it will save 1,142,641 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to power nearly 1,200 American homes for a month.
Copper Mountain's parent company Pwdr Corporation is a believer in human-caused climate change, which is why the company's Chief Sustainability Officer Brent Giles feels a moral obligation to take environmental strides.
"We're a very energy intensive business — we use a lot of electricity, a lot of diesel fuel," he said. "We do everything we can at this point to reduce our carbon footprint and the negative impacts we have on the environment. Forest health, water, recycling — that's what we concentrate on."
The company has installed wind turbines at Copper Mountain and solar thermal technology at the Solitude Lodge. There are water bottle filling stations at the resort, too, to discourage the use of plastic bottles.
The company is also using social media in a new way this season by asking customers for their energy-saving ideas. Pwdr Corporation will review the ideas submitted and pick a meaningful project to fund, Giles said.
"It seems like the right thing to do to try to keep things moving in the right direction," Giles said. "It's for the greater good."
The ski industry has long been a leader on climate change and continues to pave the way for future innovation. The Aspen Skiing Company in 2012 invested $5.5 million in a plant that converts methane into electricity at the Elk Creek Coal Mine in Somerset, Colo. The plant reportedly generates about as much electricity as the company uses annually.
In the last 10 years, Aspen Skiing Company has seen its energy costs rise from $1.5 million annually to $5 million annually, said Matt Hamilton, the company's sustainability director. Sustainability is about the environment, but it's also about a ski company's bottom line.
Aspen Skiing Company really shifted its focus to energy efficiency in order to reduce its carbon footprint, but Hamilton said there's also been a focus to use the company's brand to do more for the environment. It starts with educating guests and promoting policy changes both locally and nationally, he said.
"We are perfectly positioned, living in the mountain environment and dependent on natural snowfall, to talk about climate change," Hamilton said. "It would be short-sighted of us not to do everything we can, in our power, to preserve and protect that for future generations."
Hamilton points to the University of Colorado study by geography Professor Mark Williams and Brian Lazar of Stratus Consulting that predicts a climate in Aspen more like that of Amarillo, Texas, in 100 years if global greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates.
"Look at a world where, potentially, you're not able to ski the lower half of Aspen Mountain," he said. "So we talk about, for example, how do we find those unique partnerships like the one we were able to put together to develop the coal methane plant. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of action happening in DC."
Ski areas have endorsed more than a dozen climate change-related bills since 2000, said Link. Last year, the industry supported wind energy production tax credit legislation and clean energy standard legislation, and endorsed the Environmental Protection Agency's new power plant regulations, she said.
Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade group representing state ski areas excluding Vail Resorts, encourages state resorts to continue to seek innovative ways to cut emissions, although strategies are still developing.
"Education is paramount in building the critical mass of environmental groups, business groups, and citizens necessary to tackle the complex policy issues posed by climate change," said Colorado Ski Country USA spokeswoman Jenn Rudolph. "Recognizing the challenges, CSCUSA would like to see something that is good for the industry as a whole and takes into account varying resorts and resources."