Going beyond “green”, activism is a new standard in the ski industry

ASPEN, Colorado (AP) — Snow falls thick as skiers leave their gear and dive into the Sundeck Restaurant, one of the first certified energy-efficient buildings in the United States — this one at 11,200 feet (3,413 meters) above sea level atop Aspen Mountain in Colorado. Skiers in brightly colored helmets seek a seat at the bar, their bodies warmed by thick, insulated walls and highly efficient condensing boilers.

Overhead, WeatherNation plays on the television, looping footage of last year’s mega storms and flashing a headline: “2022 Billion Dollar Disasters.”

The Aspen Ski Company’s VP of Sustainability, who sits nearby eating a slice of pizza, says it’s not enough for resorts to simply change their on-site operations to go “green.”

“If you’re a ski resort and you care about climate change or profess to care about climate change, it absolutely needs to go beyond reducing your carbon footprint,” Auden Schendler said. “If your CEO hasn’t spoken out about climate publicly or in an editorial, you’re not a green company.”

As global warming threatens to bankrupt much of the ski industry in the coming decades, resorts are starting to take on a role as climate activists in the halls of government. The industry contributes only a small fraction of the overall greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, but it probably has a huge influence on popular culture and in the business world. While many resorts are focused on reducing their emissions, others are going much further, using their influence to shift public opinion and support climate legislation.

Arapahoe Basin is a ski area leading such efforts in the United States. Positioned high on the craggy, windswept watershed in central Colorado, the mountain is relatively well positioned to withstand a warmer and shorter winter season. The high altitude, which keeps temperatures cooler and lengthens the time snow remains on the ground, is its golden ticket. But it’s not immune to extreme weather: It has suffered close calls with wildfires and subsequent landslides, which wiped out an adjacent parking lot on its slopes in 2021.

About a decade ago, the ski resort went from spending thousands of dollars a year to offset some carbon emissions by paying carbon credits to funding a staff position focused on reducing emissions on site.

“If we’re going to ask our guests to be better, we’re going to be asking our guests to talk to their leadership, we’re going to talk directly to our leadership, we definitely feel like we need to do that too,” said Head of Sustainability Mike Nathan.

One way they are working to push a transition to renewable energy is with newly installed electric vehicle chargers. After a day on the slopes, Denver resident Kurt Zanca returned to his Tesla, which had been charging for free at one of five double-door stations located in the front row of the mountain’s parking lot.

Zanca said he believes charging infrastructure in ski areas could help encourage hesitant buyers to purchase an EV. “If you can drive up here, load up, come back, no problem, it makes it a lot easier,” Zanca said.

In the northern French Alps, luxury chalet operator Alikats also sees customer incentives as a catalyst for change. They offer discounts to guests who travel by train, choose not to eat meat, or don’t use a hot tub during their stay.

Al Judge, who owns and runs the business with his wife Kat, considers himself a realist. He’s not trying to save snow – massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed around the world to slow global warming – but rather to set a standard for how companies should operate in a way that respects natural resources and protects biodiversity.

“The more of a cultural imperative it becomes, the faster the change will be, and I think business has a very important role to play in that process,” Judge said.

The Arapahoe Basin, affectionately known by locals as “A-bay,” is working to net zero emissions by 2025, in part by relying on credits from the Colorado Carbon Fund to offset some of the natural gas and diesel it will continue to burn. in that moment . They also aim to divert 75% of their waste by then — they’re currently at 50% through various recycling and composting programs. Nathan says these efforts give them weight as they try to flex their influence off the mountain.

They have lobbied their utility, Xcel Energy, to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Earlier this year, Nathan and other industry leaders met with the governor’s staff to encourage the rapid transition to heavy equipment manufacturing for electric vehicles across the state. And, after seeing a federal bill that eventually stalled the Inflation Reduction Act, Nathan and chief operating officer Alan Hereroth co-authored an op-ed and sent letters to the Colorado congressional delegation.

“Kicking the can for another legislative session would have had direct and negative impacts on companies like us,” Nathan said.

Equally active in political work, Judge runs an organization that is studying the lack of public transport in the region and plans to lobby French officials for a solution soon. A rail route through the northern Alps would provide a more direct public transit option that could reduce the number of arriving flights, Judge said.

Customer travel remains a primary source of pollution for ski areas, with air travel, especially private jets, a major culprit. For example, more than 80 percent of flights into and out of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are private jets, airport officials said. Ideally, airports could tax private jets and put that money into renewable energy projects, Schendler said. But the Federal Aviation Administration remains a roadblock. Federal law prohibits airports from spending tax revenue offsite. This limits any renewable projects to the airport grounds and any revenue from them must be used exclusively at the facility.

While Aspen has yet to win the FAA, it has found a way to influence its local utility, Holy Cross, which supplies power to more than a dozen cities plus Vail Mountain Resort along the Interstate-70 corridor. About 15 years ago, Schendler began calling environmentally conscious locals and encouraging them to apply for board positions at the utility, which at the time produced about 10 percent renewable electricity. Today, the board is filled with pro-renewable members, largely the result of lobbying from Aspen and other activists. The utility is split 50% between renewables and fossil fuels and is committed to using 100% renewables by 2030.

Another way to accelerate the transition to renewables is through power purchase agreements. This is when a company or utility agrees to buy a certain amount of energy from yet-to-be-built projects, guaranteeing some of the financing to be built.

Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski areas in three countries, has done so with a wind farm in Nebraska and is one of five partners on a new solar plant in Salt Lake City. The power purchase agreements have helped Vail achieve 100% renewable electricity for all of its resorts and ski areas in North America and 96% internationally.

Snowshoe Mountain is a ski resort in West Virginia still largely powered by fossil fuels. As the climate bill stalled in Congress last summer, CEO Patti Duncan felt the need to get involved. She doesn’t consider herself an activist, but she wanted to speak up when she saw one of her state’s senators, Joe Manchin, defending the state’s coal industry and obstructing legislation. Duncan wondered, what about the burgeoning outdoor industry, which is adversely affected by the burning of fossil fuels?

With encouragement from owner Alterra Mountain Company and climate activist group Protect Our Winters, he wrote Manchin a letter. Days later, he came out in support of the bill. Duncan said she doesn’t know if her letter played a role in the senator’s decision, but she’s glad she spoke up.

“It’s my responsibility to do something about it for our resort, our community and our state,” Duncan said.

Across the country, Aspen had set up a kiosk in the lobby of the Limelight Hotel at the foot of Snowmass Mountain. The kiosk allowed guests to send a prepaid card to the Senator, encouraging him to support the bill.

The climate bill passed and was signed into law. As a result, record federal funding is now available for households and businesses to decarbonize buildings and transportation. But Mario Molina, executive director of Protect Our Winters, says the work has only just begun.

The next steps are “anything and everything resorts can engage in to leverage not only their political power but also their power as major consumers to help implement and deliver on the promise of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Molina said. . She warned of local opposition to renewable energy projects and said resorts could have a big impact by supporting the necessary permits for such projects, as well as tapping any available credit themselves.

Many skiers applaud such efforts and want their favorite ski areas to play a role in fighting climate change, with one major caveat.

“As long as they’re sincere and they’re not just doing it for show and they’re not really making a big change,” said Archie Bolgar, a British student vacationing in Aspen in January with friends from Bentley University in Boston.

While there are many environmental issues companies could embrace, Schendler says the focus needs to be on cutting emissions to make sure global temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. The increase is currently about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), and climate scientists warn that extreme weather events will also increase with the increase.

“If we can stabilize warming at less than 2 degrees Celsius, we will prevent billions of people from suffering. It’s profound,” she said.


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