Can Vail's ski resort cut its energy use 10 percent?

Commentary about business and finance.
Feb. 26 2010 3:23 PM

Going for the Green

Can Vail's ski resort cut its energy use 10 percent?

Vail Resorts. Click image to expand.
Vail, Colo.

The balmy weather in Vancouver, which delayed some of the Olympic downhill events, highlights the danger warmer winters pose to ski resorts. The situation isn't as dire in the higher-elevation resorts of the Rockies, but these large businesses—think of the Trapp Family Lodge on steroids—still worry that a warming planet could melt their businesses.

Vail, Colo., the home base of gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, where I spent a chunk of a recent week desperately trying to maintain my balance, is the largest single ski area in the United States: 32 lifts, 198 trails, 63 miles of snowmaking pipe, and six on-mountain restaurants. Its parent company, Vail Resorts, which has a $1.3 billion market value, has a lot to lose from climate change and a lot to gain from cutting energy use. The company spent about $27 million on energy in 2009.

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The collapse of the Copenhagen Accord and the continuing onslaught of global-warming deniers may have made a cap-and-trade regime unlikely. But in August 2008, as the ski industry was hit hard by the downturn—$92-per-day lift tickets are a tough sell in a deep recession—Vail announced it would cut energy use by 10 percent. "We figured we could probably get 5 to 7 percent just by changing behavior," says CEO Rob Katz. "And we felt a number of other steps could get us to 10 percent."

Like other companies that sell outdoor experiences, Vail had engaged in its share of symbolic green acts. Two years ago Vail covered the roof of one of the on-mountain restaurants with an 8.4-kilowatt, 42-panel photovoltaic system. Until 2009, Vail offset its electricity use by purchasing wind-power credits. When it became clear that the credits were more of a financial instrument than a tool to spur development of local wind farms, Vail reallocated the cash to a tree-planting effort in a nearby watershed area that had been damaged by a forest fire.

In seeking to slash energy use, Vail faced a challenge. Skiing is an energy-intensive business. And a high-end ski resort would seem to be singularly ill-equipped to be an energy sipper. Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at rival Aspen and author of Getting Green Done, recalls visiting a five-star hotel and proposing to swap out lightbulbs for compact fluorescents. The manager responded that he'd rather spend an extra $100,000 on electricity than risk losing a star because of a change in the lighting. "We throw energy at people," Schendler says.

Vail was clear: no turning off the energy-gulping snowmaking machines or cutting back on grooming, no turning down the temperatures in the hot tubs at the Lodge at Vail. "Expecting your guests to change their behavior so you can save energy is not a viable strategy," says Katz.

And so it took a system-based approach. "It wasn't the glamorous stuff you take your picture in front of," says Luke Cartin, senior mountain environmental-affairs manager at Vail. Reasoning that what gets measured gets controlled, the resort installed 38 submeters around the mountain so it could isolate energy use at different facilities in real time. Whipping a phone out of the pocket of his suit—in Vail, the only suits executives wear are ski suits—Cartin pulled up an app that showed the mountain was drawing about 12 megawatts of electricity.

When older snowmobiles break down, Vail purchases new, four-stroke numbers that get much higher gas mileage. A companywide policy against idling vehicles for more than five minutes is rigorously enforced. When it came time to replace the metal roof on a midmountain lodge, the company chose an asphalt shingle with a high R rating—reducing the unit's heating bills by 20 percent. With employees pitching in with energy-saving suggestions, the company cut energy use by 6.1 percent in the first year.

The 10 percent goal may remain elusive in part because Vail insists on getting a good return on efficiency-related investments. "When the price of energy came down due to the recession, so did the viability of some of those projects," says Katz. Even if they achieve it, one large company reducing energy consumption by 10 percent in two years won't save the planet—or avert a global catastrophe. Schendler of Aspen argues that national policy—not local practice—needs to change in order to preserve Colorado's ski industry.

But until that happens, self-imposed caps like Vail's may be the best hope of curbing emissions.

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