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Skiing for green
Vermont’s ski areas confront global warming

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted January 5, 2007

Vermont’s image to millions of people around the country is that of a snowy playground with world class skiing — both Nordic and alpine.

This year’s on-again, off-again flirtation with winter highlights the plight many Vermont ski areas face against a global warming trend that threatens to see their very livelihood melt away.

With few short-term fixes, a growing number of ski areas are supporting measures they hope can help keep temperatures just cool enough to keep Vermont’s mountains covered in white for a few months out of the year.

This year hasn’t looked good on the slopes, but it could be worse, ski area officials claim.
Snowfall in December was down by about seven inches for the month as compared to the 30-year average, and was down by nearly a foot for the season as compared to the past three decades.

And, to be clear, this year’s poor winter conditions are being blamed on an El Niño pattern, not global warming. But, the loss of snow and weather cold enough to make snow is causing shivers in the ski industry.

While this might be OK during most seasons, since cold weather without snow still allows most ski areas to make their own white stuff, this year has also seen warmer than normal temperatures — one of the warmest since records started being kept more than 100 years ago — making it nearly impossible for most resorts to make snow.

The little burst of snow at the turn of the year helped to bring some joy to the slopes, but the warming trend that followed only proved that in the age of global warming, hope can be fleeting.

But, some ski areas are fighting back.

The Middlebury College Snow Bowl may be the first ski area in the country to become completely carbon neutral.

Many ski areas offset their electrical use by buying carbon offsets or renewable energy credits. However, Middlebury went several steps further, offsetting electric, gas, propane, diesel, and biodiesel usage, as well as skier transportation to and from the ski area. The ski teams also figured out how much carbon they used to power and heat training rooms, coaches’ offices, and hotel rooms when they travel.

To achieve this carbon neutrality, the college has purchased carbon offsets for the ski area’s 2006-2007 operations in the amount of $7,138 to compensate for a total of 679.9 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The school bought the offsets from Charlotte-based NativeEnergy, a privately-run renewable energy company that helps reduce CO2 emissions by funding Native American owned and operated wind turbine farms and family-owned farm methane projects. The company is also providing all the carbon offsets for An Inconvenient Truth, the movie featuring former Vice Pres. Al Gore. The company offsets the film, the book, and Gore’s travel to promote the book and the film.

At Middlebury, the project originated with a group of students in an environmental economics class. The students did most of the calculations to determine how much energy and fuel was used, and then NativeEnergy refined the calculations.

“Since its first trails were cut in 1934, the Middlebury College Snow Bowl has been an integral part of Middlebury College,” said Middlebury College Snow Bowl Manager Peter Mackey. “The Snow Bowl management, supported by the college’s administration, has taken the lead in becoming a carbon neutral ski facility. We hope our actions will encourage others to do the same.”

Ski areas are perhaps the most susceptible to climate change, or at least the ones most visible to many Vermonters.

“We know they have to be very sensitive to the climate crisis,” said Billy Connelly, the marketing director of NativeEnergy. “There are few industries like ski areas that are as directly affected by a change in average snowfall; this is their lifeblood, especially in Vermont. The West has the elevation, so if the snow line moves up 500 feet, you can go up higher. In Vermont, if the snowline moves up, there’s not much higher to go. We don’t have the vertical elevation of the West.”

That’s why the company is excited about its partnership with Middlebury.

“They went above and beyond what anyone else has really looked at,” said Tom Hand of NativeEnergy. Hand is a a recent Middlebury graduate and worked on the project for the company.

Other Vermont companies are getting into the ski areas act, too. Efficiency Vermont, which helps many companies find more energy efficient ways to do business, has worked with ski areas large and small on everything from low-energy snowmaking guns to better appliances in the lodges.

Jay Peak has been working to make its operations more energy efficient, and has 80 percent of its power supplied by Hydro Quebec.
Still, the more immediate crisis is what’s happening outside their lodge windows. Or, in some cases, not happening.

“We’ve had about 15 inches of snow since Christmas Eve and that has helped resuscitate the feelings toward the season,” said Steve Wright, a spokesman for Jay Peak, which boasts the deepest snowfall in the East. “We have the regular folks who would be coming here anyway, but with the recent snowfall we’re seeing some migration to the south and north of us from resorts beginning to pick up — resorts that don’t have the snow we have.”

Wright said snowmaking had been leas than ideal until the last weekend of the year, due to warmer temperatures, but any short boost where they can make snow for 24 to 36 hours straight allows them to boost their trail count.

While Jay Peak hasn’t jumped on the global warming bandwagon, it is looking at some programs for next year or the year after.

“We’ve looked into some of the go green programs, and we’re taking a wait and see approach to some of these efforts to see which ones will work best for us,” said Wright. “The jury is still out on a lot of this stuff, and we’re being cautious before making a decision on what approach to take.”

In the meantime, they have put in place new snowmaking equipment that uses a tenth of the air as the previous snow guns.

And, Wright notes that 80 percent of the electricity used at Jay Peak is generated from Hydro Quebec, giving the mountain a decidedly green edge even when it’s making most of its white.

Many mountains rely on the people who make reservations months in advance on the gamble there will be snow. And, if it’s not here, the mountains still try to make the most of their stay.

“The day skiers, however, who are a little more savvy about the conditions, are the ones who don’t come and that’s a little more hurtful,” added Barbara Thomke, a spokeswoman for Smuggler’s Notch.

To help bend that trend, Smuggler’s Notch is one of the leading mountain resorts in Vermont taking climate change seriously.

Several years ago, Smuggler’s initiated the SkiCool program that encourages skiers and boarders to purchase green passes and badges, for as little as 50 cents a lift ticket. The proceeds from these sales are applied to offset carbon dioxide pollution contributing to global warming and are used to purchase renewable energy credits that help to finance wind farms and farm methane generators, alternative energy sources that are environmentally friendly.

In the several years Smuggler’s has offered the program, the money it generates goes to NativeEnergy in Charlotte.

Smugglers’ Notch was also the first company in Vermont to achieve the highest standard for energy efficiency in new construction as part of the Vermont Department of Public Service’s Star Home Program, and it has lead the way in recycling and composting, and has instituted a no idling policy for resort vehicles and contractors.

“Ski areas were some of the early environmentalists,” said Thomke. “The kinds of things we are doing now, and that others are doing, is likely to have more of a long-term impact than an immediate impact. We are trying to be good environmental stewards and educate our guests and educate young people about climate change, and how to do better for the environment.”

Sidebar: Seeing white, saving green

Ski areas across Vermont are spending millions of dollars on high-efficiency snowmaking tower guns, which optimize the mix of high-pressure air and water that is necessary to make snow. This reduces the amount of electricity needed to run snowmaking pumps and compressors, while at the same time improving the quality of the snow.

Most ski areas have signed contracts with their power companies to operate snowmaking equipment during off-peak hours when residential demand is lowest.

Others are beginning to sign onto the National Ski Area Association’s Sustainable Slopes program, which features a 21-point environmental charter.

Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado, and Mount Sunapee Resort in New Hampshire, have entered into an agreement with Gunnison County Electric Association to purchase Renewable Energy Certificates from Sterling Planet, a leading retail renewable energy provider.

The Muellers are purchasing 27 million kilowatt hours of Sterling Planet’s Renewable Energy Certificates from Gunnison County Electric Association, a member-owned, non-profit cooperative located in Colorado. This represents enough renewable power to fully offset the annual use of electricity by the Mueller’s three resorts. It will save an estimated 18,800 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. This is equivalent to emissions produced by the annual electricity consumption of approximately 2,200 average homes or carbon dioxide emissions associated with the combustion of 1.9 million gallons of gasoline.

Stratton Mountain officials announced the purchase of 16,500,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of renewable energy credits from Renewable Choice Energy, a leading national provider of renewable energy products. Stratton Mountain purchased enough credits to offset 100 percent of the electricity consumption of its entire operation for a year.

Stratton Mountain’s commitment to renewable energy will avoid over 22 million pounds of carbon dioxide pollution each year. That has the same effect as taking 2,000 cars off the road or planting more than 3,000 acres of trees, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

To encourage its customers to follow its lead, Stratton Mountain will offer free lift tickets to customers who sign up with Renewable Choice Energy for one year of wind power.