Ski Resorts Are Embracing A New Role – Climate Activist

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ASPEN, Colo. — Snow falls thick as skiers shed their gear and head into the Sundeck restaurant, one of the first certified energy-efficient buildings in the US. Skiers in brightly colored helmets compete for a spot at the bar, their bodies are heated by thick, insulated walls and highly efficient condensing boilers.

Overhead, WeatherNation plays on the TV, playing footage of last year’s megastorms and displaying a headline: “Billion-Dollar Disasters in 2022.”

The Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of sustainability, sitting 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 are a ski resort and you care about climate change or profess to care about climate change, you absolutely have to go beyond reducing your carbon footprint,” said Auden Schendler. “If your CEO hasn’t spoken out on the climate publicly or in an opinion piece, it’s not a green company.”

As global warming threatens to put much of the ski industry out of business for decades to come, resorts are beginning to take on a role as climate activists in the halls of government. The industry contributes only a small fraction of total greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, but it arguably has an enormous influence on popular culture and the business world. While many resorts focus on reducing their own emissions, others go much further, leveraging their influence to change public opinion and advocate for climate legislation.


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Arapahoe Basin is one ski area that is leading such efforts in the United States. Located atop the rugged and windswept Continental Divide 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 extends the time snow stays on the ground, is your golden ticket. But it’s not immune to extreme weather: It was close to wildfires and subsequent mudslides, which leveled a parking lot adjacent to its tracks in 2021.

About a decade ago, the ski area 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 ask our guests to speak to their leadership, we’re going to speak directly to our leadership, we definitely feel like we need to do that as well,” he said. Sustainability Manager Mike Nathan.

One way they are working to drive the 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 dual-port stations located in the front row of the mountain parking lot.

Zanca said he thinks charging infrastructure at ski areas can help encourage hesitant buyers to buy an EV. “If you can drive here, load up, come back, no problem, it makes it so much 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, opt out of meat, or don’t use a hot tub during their stay.

Al Judge, who owns and operates the business with his wife Kat, considers himself a realist. He’s not trying to prevent snowfall (massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed around the world to curb global warming), but rather to set a standard for how companies should operate in a way that respects resources. natural resources and protect biodiversity.

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

Arapahoe Basin, affectionately known to locals as “A-bay,” is working to achieve net zero emissions by 2025, in part by relying on credits through the Colorado Carbon Fund to offset some of the natural gas and diesel that still they will be burning at that time. . They also aim to divert 75% of their waste by then; they are currently at 50% through various recycling and composting programs. Nathan says that these efforts give them influence when they try to get their influence off the mountain.

They have lobbied their utility, Xcel Energy, to speed up 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-duty EV manufacturing across the state. And, after seeing a federal bill that eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act deadlock, Nathan and COO Alan Hereroth wrote an opinion piece and sent letters to the Colorado congressional delegation.

“Kicking the can for another legislative session was going to have direct and negative impacts on companies like ours,” Nathan said.

Similarly active in policy work, Judge runs an organization that is looking into the region’s lack of public transport and hopes to soon lobby French officials for a solution. A rail route through the northern Alps would provide a more direct public transportation option that could reduce the number of incoming flights, Judge said.

Customer travel remains a major source of pollution for ski areas, with air travel, particularly private jets, being the main culprit. For example, more than 80 percent of the flights in and out of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are private jets, airport officials said. Ideally, airports could tax private planes and invest that money in renewable energy projects, Schendler said. But the Federal Aviation Administration remains an obstacle. Federal law prohibits airports from spending tax revenue off-site. This restricts any renewable projects to the airport grounds, and any revenue earned from them must be used exclusively at the facility.

While Aspen has yet to win over the FAA, he found a way to influence his local utility, Holy Cross, which supplies power to more than a dozen cities in addition to Vail Mountain Resort along the Interstate corridor. -70. About 15 years ago, Schendler began calling out environmentally concerned locals and encouraging them to run for seats on the board of directors of the utility, which produced about 10% renewable electricity at the time. Today, the board is packed with pro-renewable energy members, much of it lobbied by Aspen and other activists. The utility is split 50/50 between renewables and fossil fuels, and is committed to 100% renewables by 2030.

Another way to speed up the transition to renewable energy is through power purchase agreements. This is when a company or utility company commits to purchase a set amount of power from projects yet to be built, guaranteeing part of the funds to be built.

Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski areas in three countries, has done this with a wind farm in Nebraska and is one of five partners for a new solar panel in Salt Lake City. 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 that is still largely powered by fossil fuels. When 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 out when she saw one of her state senators, Joe Manchin, defend the state’s coal industry and delay legislation. Duncan wondered, what about the thriving outdoor industry, which is negatively affected by the burning of fossil fuels?

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

“It is 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 base of Snowmass Mountain. The kiosk allowed guests to send a prepaid card to the senator, encouraging him to support the bill.

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

The next steps are “anything and everything that resorts can do to leverage not only their political power but also their power as big consumers to help implement and make the promise of the Reduced Inflation Act a reality,” Molina said. . He warned of local opposition to renewable energy projects and said that resorts could make a big impact by advocating for the necessary permits for those projects, as well as taking advantage of every available credit on their own.

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

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

While there are plenty of environmental issues corporations could tackle, Schendler says the focus needs to be on reducing emissions to make sure global temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times. . The rise is currently about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), and climatologists warn that as it increases, so will extreme weather events.

“If we can stabilize warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, we will save billions of people from suffering. That is profound,” she said.


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