The Next Steps

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March 2007


With global warming looming large, what can ski resorts do to stem the tide beyond the traditional conservation programs?
During January, a couple of academic-quality climate studies focused specifically on the future of ski resorts in a warmer world.

Close to home, a report on Park City's prospects forecast average local warming of 5.9F to 15.1F by 2100, depending on how well the world manages its carbon emissions. The paper, compiled for Park City Resort by Stratus Consulting and the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and patterned after a report done last year for Aspen, predicts a small increase in winter precipitation and a sharp drop in summer rainfall. This implies a snowpack season starting three to seven weeks late by 2075, and possibly no snow accumulation at all by 2100. By 2075, Thanksgiving will no longer be a ski holiday, and midseason snow depths will be 15 to 65 percent lower-that is, say goodbye to Utah's bottomless powder. Throughout the Rockies, atmospheric warming will increase roughly a third faster than the global mean temperature, which means that snowmaking won't be possible, in most years, until the end of November.

In Europe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a forecast for the future of ski resorts in the Alps. It concluded that by 2100, high-elevation resorts in France and Switzerland will see the snowline rise 300 to 600 meters (1,000 to 2,000 feet), reducing skiable terrain by 20 percent at the highest stations and 90 percent at lower lift systems. The report looked at 666 resorts in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany and Slovenia, accounting for about 160 million skier-days. The big losers will be resorts in Germany and Austria, which have generally lower elevations.

Then, on February 2, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change began issuing its quadrennial update on climate science, containing dire predictions of massive drought, massive flooding and epidemics of tropical diseases in temperate climates.

Are these predictions credible? You bet. The IPCC report, for instance, represents the consensus of 600 climatologists who wrote it, and another 600 who reviewed it. Bear in mind that the IPCC report makes predictions on a continental scale, and doesn't pretend to say what might happen in any specific Alpine valley, as the Aspen, Park City and OECD reports do. The temperature signal, as we've seen, is very spiky: some months will be much warmer (December in New England and Europe), some much colder (late January in both places). What is certain is that temperatures will trend upward, in unpredictable steps, but inexorably. By implication, these studies bode ill for low-elevation ski resorts in New England and the Pacific Northwest.


What Can You Do?

Aside from planning to open French-style ski-in lodging well above the forecast snowline, resorts need to take the lead in teaching the world's industrialists and homeowners to sharply reduce carbon emissions. The predictions above are based on assumptions about how much, or how little, businesses and individuals change their energy habits. To make the predictions false, it's essential to cut emissions. Resorts can take several steps to show the way.

1. Go beyond Green Tags. According to Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the National Ski Areas Association, 54 American resorts have already purchased carbon offsets, often called Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), to compensate for the greenhouse gases generated by their energy use. In theory, this makes the resorts renewable-powered. Buying RECs is easy and relatively cheap, but as Aspen's executive director of environmental affairs Auden Schendler points out, it doesn't take a single pound of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A number of environmental activists have recently pointed out that carbon offsets are an unregulated market, and you don't know what your investment in the concept is actually doing (see for instance the discussion at www.celsias.com/blog/2006/12/22/carbon-offset-certification-standard-proposed/). See also http://makower.typepad.com/joel_makower/2006/12/are_carbon_offs.html, which lists eight REC sellers deemed legitimate. The subtext of this argument is that a misuse-of-funds scandal is in the offing. So it's time to think bigger.

2. Advocate efficiency. The ski resort business is highly visible to a customer base comprised of economic decision makers. Aspen and Mammoth have taken a lead in putting the anti-carbon message in front of guests, via brochures, safety-bar advertising, trail map messages, and employee education. Talk to your customers, and provide incentives for their own efficiency. These don't have to be financial or pricing incentives-a Green Club offering peer recognition may be effective.

3. Promote:
• Energy efficiency upgrades for second homes.
• Energy efficiency upgrades for local businesses.
• Energy efficiency upgrades for customer-owned businesses.
• Carpooling or use of public transportation and efficient hybrid vehicles.
• "No idling" signs in parking lots.
• Turn the lift ticket into a Green Tag.
• And most important: Lobby. Talk to elected officials and public utility boards every chance you get. You're probably the biggest customer for the local power company; make sure they know your long-term needs for renewable, not coal-fired, energy. Lobby for renewable energy, for research, for transportation efficiency, for stricter building codes.
• While you're at it, lobby for legislation that will support the economic health of our middle class customers-the families who can no longer afford the lodging rates at destination resorts, and who therefore have to drive both ways to enjoy a single day of skiing.

4. Clean up your own facilities. You've already installed efficient fluorescent lighting everywhere. Now replace leaky windows and doors, and upgrade building insulation. Change over to high-efficiency condensing boilers, which are 97 percent efficient, compared to 80 percent for conventional boilers. All these changes have bottom-line benefits and will pay for themselves in three to ten years, depending on what you're now paying for electricity and natural gas. Have your power vendor do a (free) energy audit of your facilities, and then comply with the recommendations. Hire a consultant with an infrared camera to find heat leaks in roofs and cellars.

5. Plan new construction to comply with the LEED standard, or do even better. LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (http://www.usgbc.org). As an example, the new village at Snowmass exceeds local insulating and energy codes by 30 percent. Another: Architect David Tirman notes that the new 20-acre Northstar-at-Tahoe development conforms to a steadily rising California energy code (Title 24), the strictest in the country. Aspen's Schendler recommends that long-term planning shoot for a 50 percent improvement over existing standards, and orienting all buildings to maximize solar gain.

6. Move aggressively to find, create and use local renewable energy sources. This means using biofuels, wind turbines, micro-hydro, co-generation, solar and geothermal sources. What the resort does can cascade through the local economy and power grid. Consider:
• A ten-meter wind turbine producing 120 kilowatts, enough power in a year to drive a 500hp ski lift for a 100-day ski season. You could build a ten-meter turbine for each lift, for less than $150,000 per, and become a net contributor to the local power grid. The new 1.5-megawatt turbine at Jiminy Peak will cost $3.9 million but will produce twice as much power as Jiminy consumes-and will pay for itself in just a few years. This makes more sense if you're paying 12 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour (in California or the Northeast) than if you're paying 7 to 8 cents (most Rocky Mountain areas). However, the presence of a wind turbine on your property says you're serious about this issue in a way nothing else can.
• Wonder about the availability of wind turbines? Your lift manufacturer could build them, with some creative engineering. A wind turbine consists of a steel tower, a gearbox, a honking big motor (the generator proper), and a sophisticated control system with power conditioner-plus turbine blades. The only thing your lift manufacturer can't supply is the turbine blades. Designs for turbine blades are available free from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., another example of your tax dollars at work. And you have the opportunity to help solve the rime-ice problem that shuts turbines down during winter storms.
• You have a snowmaking pond and enough existing pipes to run a micro-hydro plant in your compressor house. This means that for the cost of plumbing in the generator, your pond becomes an energy storage system during the summer. When the wind blows, use wind-turbine energy to pump water into the pond. When it doesn't blow, run the water down through the hydro plant.
• Use biofuel wherever possible. Mammoth bought enough 20 percent biodiesel to run its snowcats and bus system. The purchase created a local storage-and-delivery infrastructure, making it economical for the town and local businesses to convert their own vehicle fleets to use the stuff.
• Use photovoltaic panels to run lighting at outlying facilities, and watch this market for price breakthroughs.
• Investigate other local energy sources. Lisa Isaacs, environmental programs director at Mammoth, reports that the resort, which is located on the edge of a vast caldera, hired an engineering firm from Iceland to look at geothermal sources. Test wells have already proven that volcanically-heated hot water is available near the resort. If flow is sufficient, the resort-and the town-will tap this source for space heating and snow-melting circuits. Any resort with nearby hot springs or volcanic vents should look into this free energy source.

What are the next steps in the battle against global warming? There are so many options, it should be relatively easy to identify several that will work at and for your resort. Perhaps the most important steps are to recognize that winter resorts have the greatest incentive-survival-of any industry, and to make energy efficiency and emission reduction everyday concerns, not occasional acts.
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