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Saturday, February 26, 2011
Negawatt is the new megawatt


Stratton Mountain has invested in a high-efficiency snowmaking system -- one of the many steps the resort is taking to reduce its environmental impact.

Unlike your home, which is powered by energy measured in hundreds-to-thousands of watts, most modern ski resort operations measure their energy needs in Megawatts (mega = 1 million watts). The rub, as many ski resort operations are acutely aware, is that conventional energy is supplied by fossil fuels, like coal, that are harmful to the environment. As climate change is bringing about increasingly shorter ski seasons, which in turn is crunching revenues of ski resorts and the towns that depend on them to survive, it is becoming hard for resorts to not search for ways to decrease the carbon footprints caused by their day-to-day operations.

When you consider how much wind and sun many ski resorts get, a quick answer would seem to be to meet those large clean-power needs with on-site renewable energy. Resorts like Jiminy Peak, Bolton Valley and Grouse Mountain have installed slopeside wind turbines, planned for their own hydroelectric power like Whistler Blackcomb, and even juiced up ski lifts with solar power, like the Tenna Resort in Switzerland and Westendorf in Austria.

This pump fills the Waste Veggie Oil tank on the converted biofuel vehicle in the Jackson Hole work-vehicle fleet.

These few examples are the exception to the general trend, however, which finds real estate being developed at ski resorts with greater frequency than solar panels, wind turbines, or hydropower. Still, resorts haven't all been asleep at the, ahem, bull wheel. Quite the opposite, in fact -- across North America, in a less dramatic but equally important fashion, resorts are reducing their environmental impact by increasing their energy efficiency.

Efficiency is like renewable energy's socially awkward, yet hugely successful second cousin. Largely unseen and unsung, efficiency efforts are at work behind the scenes, as resorts are running on the least amount of power possible, and taking advantage of every opportunity to do more with less.

"There is no question that energy efficiency must come first," says Stratton's Environmental Manager Jenna Pugliese. "In order to maximize the returns on a renewable energy project, we need to make sure our initial consumption is as low as possible."

Stratton's focus has been on investing in high-efficiency building maintenance -- which includes everything from energy efficient lighting to motion-sensor activated vending machines, updated HVAC and air conditioning and upgraded refrigerators -- and snowmaking systems. For their efforts, Stratton won a 2009 National Ski Areas Association Silver Eagle Excellence in Energy Conservation & Clean Energy Award.

Even more important than the award, Stratton got results: "Our actual billed [electrical] usage from 2008 versus 2007 reflected an 18 percent savings," says Pugilese.

Savings are a major reason why ski resorts around the nation -- including Park City in Utah, Bolton Valley in Vermont, Mt. Ashland in Oregon, Aspen in Colorado, Squaw Valley in California, and Jackson Hole in Wyoming -- are taking on the efficiency challenge.

"It would be a mistake for us to invest in on-site renewable energy if the extra power is blowing out the window," says Jackson Hole's Environmental Coordinator Jon Bishop.

Jackson Hole's closed-loop water recycling area. It pulls water from the vehicle maintenance shop drains. Each chamber filters the water, kills bacteria and modifies PH before it goes back to the shop for industrial-pressure washer use.

Jackson Hole's environmental programs, which include sponsoring public transportation for their employees, and treating wastewater overflow for washing snowcats, vehicles and equipment, are ISO 14001 certified. Jackson Hole is one of only two U.S. ski resorts to be certified under ISO 14001 (Aspen was the first), the most widely known and respected environmental stamp of approval for business-wide environmental management. Jackson Hole has even measured -- and disclosed -- their overall 2009 consumption to use as a baseline for their plan of reducing electricity, fuel, and propane use (among others) by 10 percent by 2015.

"On-site construction and maintenance is costly. Construction has a negative environmental impact, and implementation can bear a negative visual impact and cut down on available skier terrain," says Bishop of the reasons Jackson Hole has chosen to walk the energy-reduction path to environmental efficiency rather than the on-site renewable energy generation one. "We are eating our energy efficient vegetables before we indulge in a renewable energy dessert."

Stratton describes a similar issue with on-site power generation. "We are going to great lengths to identify a destination for a possible wind turbine," says Pugilese. "If we were to install a 100 kilowatt turbine at the summit without properly vetting its placement, it could preclude us from building a 1.5 megawatt in the future."

No doubt planning is in order. In the meantime, resorts are battening down the hatches and mapping out strategies for reduced energy use over the long haul.

There is, however, a potential wrinkle in this approach. While efficiency is being evangelized across almost all industries and governments as a "win-win" situation, saving energy and netting businesses economic savings too, there is criticism: If it takes less energy to make a product or service, then you can sell the product or service for less, which equals more sales or more consumer visits. Simply put, the net product of efficiency efforts could actually be more consumption.

Though debates about a "rebound effect" abound, it is still safe to say that a good way to be mindful of your ski/snowboard habit's environmental footprint is head into the backcountry on your own two feet, or patronize resorts that are working towards the same end goal.