Playing Renewable Roulette

Rising energy costs are cutting into bottom lines for ski resorts from the Catskills to the Cascades. The broader science of global warming has the attention of an industry increasingly worried about its financial future in a warmer world. To date, programs such as NSAA's Sustainable Slopes and Keep Winter Cool campaign have raised the level of dialogue and prompted actions as innocuous as buying low-energy light bulbs and as costly as purchasing biodiesel vehicles.

But Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort near Hancock, Mass., has taken groundbreaking steps to not only mitigate the consumption of fossil fuels and the consequences of burning them, but to actually dive full-on into the business of generating renewable energy. Jiminy could become the first ski area in the United States to install a wind turbine that will not only allow it to satisfy a large percentage of its own energy needs, but also sell electricity into the grid.

This rendering shows where Jiminy Peak's turbine will be located and its visual impact.

"What started out as a research project on the future costs of energy turned into, 'What can we do today to help control our future?'" Jiminy director of special projects Jim Van Dyke says. "One, in the way of electricity costs, and two, as a way to reduce the use of fossil fuels."

Jiminy's overall energy costs for everything from snowmaking to lifts to slope lighting to heat jumped from about $780,000 for the 2003-04 season to nearly $950,000 in 2004-05. That's when the resort began seriously studying ways to slash energy costs to avoid passing on continual price increases to guests.

In 2004, Jiminy applied for, and later received, a Massachusetts Technological Collaborative grant of $582,000 to pay for engineering, consulting and the purchase of a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine, which has been ordered and should be up and running by summer 2007. The final price tag will be $3.9 million-no small amount for a small Eastern ski area. But with energy costs expected to surpass $1.5 million for the 2005-06 season, it's an investment well worth making, Van Dyke says.

"The project will pay for itself in about seven years. Of course, if the cost of electricity continues to increase, then the payback will be shorter. Do you think they will decrease?" Van Dyke asks rhetorically. "So yes, it does make sense for the long haul, and the marketing aspects will also be helpful. The cost of the power we produce will be cheaper than any we could purchase from the grid, green or otherwise."

The process has been a long and arduous one, requiring studies of everything from the potential wetlands impacts of the access road to a bird study (the death toll for birds was a big knock on wind turbines before technology improved in recent years) and from rare and endangered species to visual impacts.

With all the studies completed, Jiminy opted to install its 375-foot (253-foot structure with a 122-foot blade) General Electric wind turbine 350 feet below the 2,350-foot summit of the ski mountain to avoid visual impacts. More than 1,000 feet from any ski trails, located near the resort's water-storage reservoir, the turbine will be hit by unimpeded westerly winds sweeping in from New York.

In full swing, the turbine will produce 4.6 million kilowatt hours, well over half of the 7 million kilowatt hours the resort uses each season. Van Dyke says such benefits will offset the significant investment of time and money required in the approval process.

"Being the first is giving us the ability to give some good advice to others within the industry," Van Dyke says. "Start early and do more homework, especially environmentally, than what you may be required to do. It will save you in time and money later in the project. Get and keep the community and environmental groups updated even if they are not supporters. Know what their concerns are, and always be up front and truthful with good and bad news."

Alternative Alternatives
Vail Resorts garnered some serious publicity in early August when it announced plans to purchase 152,000 megawatt-hours of wind energy, enough to offset 100 percent of its energy use at its five mountain resorts, its lodging properties, 125 retail locations and its new corporate headquarters in Broomfield, Colo.

The move, which will make the ski company the second largest corporate buyer of wind energy in the U.S. behind Texas-based Whole Foods, preempts a study the company launched several years ago to explore the installation of four wind turbines on Ptarmigan Ridge atop Vail Mountain.

"While there might be some additional pizzazz with mountain-top turbines, it's really not the most environmentally sensitive way to go and not the most efficient way to go," Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz says, acknowledging that one of the key principles of the green movement is to concentrate construction activity. "So rather than putting turbines all over the national forest, let's collect and concentrate them where you get the most bang for your buck."
Which for Vail Resorts means buying wind-energy credits through Boulder, Colo.-based Renewable Choice Energy, a broker for wind farms around the country.

While Katz would not divulge the increased cost of essentially replacing all the energy it takes out of the grid with wind power, he says the marketing value was made immediately apparent by a deluge of e-mails and phone calls from customers and employees praising the action.

"It's more expensive, but for us it's not really a matter of cost, it's a matter of choice," Katz says. "It's a matter of choosing renewable energy. We really see this as a way to improve our relationship with our guests."

Over at Aspen Skiing Company, long recognized as an environmental leader, they have installed the largest solar system in the ski industry at almost no cost, taking advantage of tax breaks, subsidies and incentives.

"Solar tends to be expensive, but most states have killer subsidies now," says Auden Schendler, Aspen's environmental affairs director. "And solar is the most inspirational. The most businesslike project is micro-hydro, but you have to have a stream, one that runs year-round preferably. Returns can be on the order of seven years for payback, and the systems go in with much less hassle than (wind) turbines."

In 2004, Aspen installed the industry's first micro-hydro power plant at Snowmass-a system that channels spring runoff through a turbine, generating about 250,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year-enough to power 40 homes a year and keep 500,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. "Our hydro plant has a 10-year payback, but should run indefinitely," Schendler says. "Ski resorts with limited resources and shrinking profit margins should be looking for different ways to make money, and onsite renewables is one."

Aspen also buys enough wind power to claim several lifts and facilities are on the green juice, even marketing the fact that the annual Winter X Games are totally wind-powered. Schendler acknowledges that such steps, while being truly environmentally beneficial, are largely public relations ploys. "Buying the wind power or credits has no clear return on investment except for PR, but renewables do," he says.

"No matter what you do, you have to promote it," he adds. "We want resorts to be motivated to do good things because of the accolades they get. And we need to promote our work because we are trying to educate the public about what can be done. We want to create a revolution and look good doing it."

Powerful Allies
Aspen and Vail are both situated in a fertile climate for purchasing and producing renewable energy. Holy Cross Energy, whose coverage area includes both resorts, is as progressive as any small, rural power co-op can be in pursuing alternative power supplies. More than six percent of Holy Cross's current power supply comes from renewables, and the company has an aggressive goal of raising that number to 20 percent by the year 2015. By then, state law requires all public utilities to be at 10 percent.

"We are trying to be an industry leader in reducing carbon emissions or at least acquiring offsets for those emissions," says Holy Cross spokesman Steve Casey. "We are aware of the global warming or climate change concerns and we're trying to be proactive in doing our part to potentially mitigate the situation."

While acknowledging individual conservation will have a far more wide-ranging impact on climate change, Casey says ski areas would seem to have one of the biggest stakes in leading the green energy charge. "Environmental stewardship would largely drive a ski company's business decision to enter into renewable energy generation," he says. "Solar probably being the most expensive, followed by wind and hydro."

In 2004, on a smaller scale, Vail went solar last season by testing a prototype Sun Pak cordless trash compactor that cuts down on the cost of trash removal and can store up to two weeks of sun poer to perform 25 compactions per day.

But Casey adds that as energy costs rise, the return on investment for installing a renewable energy generation system becomes ever more tangible. His company will pay ski areas that buy their energy from Holy Cross $2 per watt of distributed generation. They also offer grants for energy audits and rebates on energy-efficient appliances, so even if a ski area can't quite make the major investment required of installing a renewable power plant, it can still be visibly proactive.

"People sometimes think the change has to be so grandiose that the world has to stand up and take notice, but the impact can be just as significant from doing the small things," Casey says.

The European Example
With the cost of a barrel of crude oil soaring into the $70-plus stratosphere and even some members of the Bush administration touting hydrogen fuel cells and ethanol-powered cars, it's clearly an alternative-energy world out there.

To understand that more clearly, U.S. areas can look to Europe-high energy costs have been a reality for years. This has prompted resorts like Serre Chevalier in France to switch last year to an energy provider that produces 25 percent of the resort's power from renewable sources. That exceeds the French national target of using 21 percent renewable energy by 2010.

Former Vail mayor Ludwig Kurz, who grew up in Salzburg, Austria, and now serves as director of community relations for Beaver Creek, says European ski resorts are far ahead in the realm of renewable energy and environmental stewardship in general. "They don't only pay lip service, which I believe we sometimes do, to the environment," says Kurz, who has fostered a sister-resort relationship between Beaver Creek and Lech-Zurs, Austria. "(The Europeans) are actually doing things about it." He notes that Lech has had a highly successful biomass plant for 10 years, which has cleaned up the air and lowered heating costs throughout the resort. "They genuinely believe that unless they take care of the environment, their business is going to suffer a great deal in the next 10 to 15 years," says Kurz. -DW
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