Going for the Green

By Gross, Daniel | Newsweek, March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Going for the Green


Gross, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Gross

How one ski resort cleaned up its act.

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, however. But these large businesses--think of the Trapp Family Lodge on steroids--still worry that a warming planet could melt their businesses.

Vail, 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 $27amillion in energy in 2009.

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 a 10 percent energy layoff. "We figured we could probably get 5 to 7 percent just by changing behavior," says CEO Rob Katz, a hybrid-driving ski enthusiast. "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, Bailey's, 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. …

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