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Ski Resorts Go Green With Wind Power

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 9, 2007
 
Skiers love white winters, but this year some of their favorite resorts
are going "green."

Many ski areas nationwide are turning to wind power to reduce their environmental footprint.

Twenty-two resorts in seven states now use wind power credits to supply 100 percent of their electricity demands.

Together the areas purchase 305,074,498 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of clean electricity and keep about 372,383,234 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas believed to be causing global warming, from entering the atmosphere.

The emissions-reduction effort is equivalent to planting almost 15 million trees or eliminating nearly 150,000 round-trip flights between New York and San Francisco.

It makes sense for the ski business to turn to cleaner sources of power, since it may be among the first industries to feel the heat from global warming.

The warm weather that is already cutting deeply into ski profits is projected to further threaten many traditional winter sports hotbeds.

And retreating glaciers and unreliable snowfall, particularly at lower altitudes, could force many resorts to close or relocate within decades. (Related: "Bears' Mountain Home to Host Next Winter Olympics' Skiiers" [March 15, 2006].)

"Absolutely, I think resorts recognize the impact that global warming could potentially have," said Troy Hawks, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colorado.

"In recognizing that, they've taken an approach that begins with reducing their own impact on the environment through the purchase of renewable energy credits."

Wind and Snow

Today small operators as well as industry giants such as Aspen Skiing Company, Vail Resorts, and the American Skiing Company run wind-powered resorts.

In total, 51 resorts use at least partial amounts of renewable energy—and the roster is growing.

Some resorts are trying an on-site approach.

Jiminy Peak, in Massachusetts, is constructing a massive on-site windmill that operators hope will provide a third of the resort's electric energy—at a savings of more than $500,000 (U.S.) each year. (Related photo gallery: "Beyond Fossil Fuels" in National Geographic magazine.)

But for many other areas, such as those located on state or federal lands, such infrastructure changes may not be possible.

In these cases resorts can buy energy credits from central suppliers. This ensures that the resorts' total energy use will be restored to the larger power grid by renewable energy producers.

The system allows any business to purchase wind-powered electricity—even if they may not be able to physically run their operation from a local wind farm.

Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in Truckee, California—the first U.S. resort to reply completely on wind power—may have started the movement.

Their decision originally represented a departure from the norm.

"At the time I think that only Patagonia, Clif Bar, and other notoriously environmentally conscious companies were doing it," said Sugar Bowl spokesperson Kris York.

But Sugar Bowl's decision "really has to do with our ownership group," he added.

"Sugar Bowl is privately held by a small group of people who are business leaders and politically active—they believe it's the right thing to do. Preservation of the environment is a number one concern for them."

This will be Sugar Bowl's second full season operating under its greener electric system.

Green Commitment May Boost Business

Green power may lend both philosophical and practical benefits.

Tim and Diane Mueller, for instance, own Mount Sunapee (in New Hampshire), Crested Butte (in Colorado) and Okemo (in Vermont)—all of which rely on wind power for 100 percent of their electricity.

"Every company has core values, and one of our core values is the environment. It affects our business. I mean, we're outside," said Mount Sunapee spokesperson Bruce McCloy.

"Tim and Diane feel that by investing in renewable energy we're investing in the future of our business."

McCloy reports positive feedback from skiers and boarders at Mount Sunapee.

"Our guests here are all outdoor enthusiasts," he said. "Most people that ski also like to hike, golf, bike—they live outside. Our guests are concerned about the environment, so becoming a green resort is what we think our guests would like us to do."

Green profiles may also spawn some profitable partnerships.

"In the ski business you do a lot with partnerships and sponsorships and [wind energy use] has attracted companies like Clif Bar to do business with us," said Sugar Bowl's York. "They want to work with other companies who are environmentally responsible."

Wind power costs more than conventional electricity, but participating resorts describe the financial premium as modest.

Sugar Bowl first considered using only partial wind energy, but discovered that that the premium was so reasonable that they decided to go with 100 percent."

"I think the difference was like $30,000 [U.S.]," York said, "which is not so much. We could have easily spent $30,000 on a radio advertising campaign."

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