Bringing green to the ski hill

Solar panels and a wind turbine educate Park City Mountain Resort skiers about renewable energy, but they provide only a small fraction of the resort’s power. Jonathan Royce / The Daily Utah Chronicle
Solar panels and a wind turbine educate Park City Mountain Resort skiers about renewable energy, but they provide only a small fraction of the resort’s power.
Jonathan Royce / The Daily Utah Chronicle

A warming climate is causing Utah’s ski resorts to kick-start sus- tainabiliity measures. But will these projects make a difference?

Shane Gadbaw had a right to be scared — the dry winter of 2011-2012 was hitting Eagle Point hard. Gadbaw was part of an ownership group that purchased the mountain just a year prior, and during its second season he looked at dry slopes throughout November.
And December.
And January.
“I was getting pretty nervous,” Gadbaw says. “I thought, ‘Did we just buy a ski area that gets no snow?’ ”
Gadbaw wasn’t able to drop the ropes on season two until Jan. 27. Eagle Point is faring much better this year, with 286 inches of snow as of publishing. But the treacherous conditions of the prior season are something Utah ski resort owners might have to deal with on a more regular basis.
Last season’s lean winter made an impact across Utah. Nearly every Utah resort received less than 80 percent of its regular snowpack, and prior to the wetter March and April months, Utah resorts had received just over two-thirds of the normal snowfall.
The dry winter, coupled with one of the hottest summers on record, raised climate change awareness nationwide, and that sentiment wasn’t lost on ski resorts. In response, resorts are doubling down on sustainability initiatives in an attempt to educate visitors, save money, and become leaders in the country’s shift toward more climate-friendly practices.
Those in the winter sports industry have a vested interest in keeping the climate cool, but it wasn’t until recently that dollar amounts were attached to the threat global warming poses to Utah’s ski industry.
A study authored by University of New Hampshire researchers compared the relationship between revenue and snowfall in ski areas across the country, and the numbers were striking. In Utah, where skiing is a $1 billion business, revenue was $87 million less in the lowest snow year than in the year with the greatest snowfall between 1999 and 2010, and there were 1,000 fewer jobs in the low-snow year. As the climate continues to warm, today’s minimal snowpacks could become the norm.
The future looks bleak. A 2007 study by The National Academy of Sciences showed that winters shortened by 2.3 to 4.6 days per decade during the past 80 years because of a warming climate, and most climate models project that warming effect to accelerate in coming years. Locally, warming could be pronounced. A study commissioned by the Park City Foundation found Park City could warm by as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit, and precipitation could decrease 4.5 percent by 2075. This scenario could cost Park City’s overall economy more than $66 million.
Utah resorts have responded to the threat. Nearly every resort is switching to high-efficiency lighting and appliances. All of Deer Valley’s off-road diesels run on biofuel, and on-mountain lakes collect 20 million gallons of runoff to be used for snowmaking the following year. Canyons’ parent company, Talisker, is emphasizing local food purchasing, and one restaurant, The Farm, is hoping to become the first zero-waste restaurant in Utah. Snowbird has built a cogeneration plant, which simultaneously produces electricity and usable heat, and has partnered with TreeUtah for a revegetation project. Sundance offers a $5 discount for carpoolers.
Of all Utah’s resorts, Park City Mountain Resort has received the most recognition for its proactive approach to sustainability. In its latest annual report card, Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition gave PCMR its top ranking. SACC, a group headed by nonprofit conservation organizations Sierra Nevada Alliance and Rocky Mountain Wild, ranks the resorts based on 35 criteria including sensitive land preservation, water conservation and alternative energy use.
It’s no surprise PCMR came out on top. The resort has purchased vast amounts of renewable energy credits, equipped the mountain with more efficient snowmakers and is using biodiesel and compressed natural gas in its snowcats. In all, the resort has spent about $1,415,300 on sustainability measures since 2004, reducing its footprint by approximately 15,700 tons of carbon dioxide and offsetting about 37,600 tons through renewable energy credits.
The man behind PCMR’s green shift is Brent Giles, chief sustainability officer for Powdr Corp, PCMR’s parent company. Giles is a Santa Claus-looking fellow who sits in a darkened office, which was the case for much of Powdr’s Park City headquarters. If there is enough sunshine outside to see inside, people in the office generally keep the lights off, Giles says.
Giles says Powdr’s commitment to sustainability was a top-down process. Powdr owners John and David Cumming made it a goal to trim the footprint of their company, and the motivation was multi-faceted.
“Our concern was that our business is snow,” Giles says. “We believe in the science, so we had to make a choice. It wasn’t just a financial decision, but a moral one as well.”
At Alta, that moral imperative began when the resort was established 75 years ago. The town of Alta was originally a silver mining hot spot, and much of the forest was clear-cut to provide the resources necessary for extraction. It wasn’t until the ski area took over that the landscape started to resemble its current, more natural state.
“After the exchange [between the mining companies and the ski resort], the land finally had the opportunity to come back,” says Maura Olivos, Alta’s sustainability coordinator. “The [Civilian Conservation Corps] was in here planting trees early, but most of the recuperation was the ski area’s responsibility.”
Olivos says this approach has made Alta employees feel like stewards for the Little Cottonwood Canyon landscape since the resort’s inception. Since Alta doesn’t have the deep coffers Powdr does, it takes a different approach to sustainability by placing a much greater emphasis on education.
“Recognizing conservation and interdependence is key for today’s youth,” Olivos says. “Lots of people don’t understand the basics, and we don’t have the means to send 100 rangers out to talk to every hiker.”
Part of Olivos’ job is to communicate to employees the resort’s role as a liaison between the urban environment of Salt Lake City and the wilderness in the canyons to the east. Thus, Alta employees spend a great deal of time educating guests, especially in the summer, about plant life, conservation basics, and how to best interact with wildlife.

Park City Mountain Resort uses biodiesel and CNG snowcats to decrease its carbon footprint. Jonathan Royce / The Daily Utah Chronicle
Park City Mountain Resort uses biodiesel and CNG snowcats to decrease its carbon footprint.
Jonathan Royce / The Daily Utah Chronicle

Few critics are speaking out against the ski industry’s attempt at greening up its practices, but measures of magnitude are blurry. PCMR, for example, released an average of 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through its skiing operations from 2006 through 2012. After factoring in wind power initiatives, the footprints drop by more than 50 percent, but the wind power PCMR uses in its outcomes comes from purchased credits, not direct investment in sourced wind power. Thus, only a miniscule fraction of the energy PCMR is using comes from renewable sources, though the money invested in credits does stimulate further turbine development.
Resorts such as Alta and PCMR are trying to decrease their footprint, but the numbers are showing a steady upward trend in energy consumption, even after the sustainability initiatives were put in place. PCMR’s footprint grew by about 2,700 tons since 2006 while Alta’s 6,800-ton footprint in 2011 has grown from fewer than 6,100 tons in 2007. If temperatures continue to warm, those numbers will likely rise further as snowmaking is one of a resort’s most energy-intensive practices.
Land management is another sustainability issue resorts face. Although installing LED light bulbs is a nice touch, and slopes such as those at Alta are in better shape now than they were when mines dominated Utah’s mountains, critics such as Save Our Canyons director Carl Fisher argue the resorts’ desires to gobble up land and build interconnecting lifts belittle any efforts to improve sustainability.
“We don’t need more condos or revolving restaurants on the top of peaks,” says Fisher, mocking Snowbird’s plan to build a restaurant at the summit of Hidden Peak. “[That development] is like pooping in your own watershed.”
Utah’s resorts have drawn considerable heat for the frequency of expansion and interconnect proposals, but Giles isn’t concerned by these developments. Compared to the work of the National Forest Service, Giles says ski resorts do a better job of taking care of the landscape. Giles points out glading trees prevents the accumulation of dry undergrowth, a key component to last summer’s widespread forest fires, and that resorts typically do a better job of preventing erosion than government agencies.
“If you look at our resort and then go find a comparable piece of land in a national forest, you’ll see that [ski resort] land is less eroded, has healthier vegetation, and is generally in better shape,” Giles says.
Fisher disagrees.
“These lands know how to take care of themselves,” he says. “The stresses come from visitation, so the resorts require land management … mitigation is a job of ski resorts.”
Most of these issues are inherent within the ski resort industry, though, which has always been an energy, water, and resource-intensive operation. Giles says it is nearly impossible for a ski resort to produce all of its energy in-house. For PCMR to cover all electricity via wind energy, Giles says it would have to erect at least six of the largest wind turbines, which generally have rotors that are more than 250 feet in diameter. To use solar power, the array would have to be substantial. Ski resorts can’t afford to give up the space or the scenery to these projects.
Sustainability projects are also expensive. Giles says he has the ability to put initiatives into place only because Powdr dedicates 1 percent of its annual revenue to sustainability projects, while Olivos is working with a far more limited budget at Alta.
Thus, the energy grid will have to shift to renewable sources before ski resorts can feasibly do it. The reason behind resorts’ looking into sustainability, then, is far more symbolic than it is practical.
“We’re working hard, but what’s that going to do?” Olivos says. “Alta ski area alone is not going to change the world. We’ve asked ourselves how to get people to act for the future, and this is a good place to start.”
Back at Eagle Point, Gadbaw tries not to think about climate change. He certainly doesn’t have the revenue necessary to throw solar panels on all the resort buildings, and even if he did, those actions alone wouldn’t affect the snowfall in the Tushar Mountains. So, for resort owners such as Gadbaw, the hope is industry initiatives will spark society-wide change that will slow the warming of the planet and the shortening of winters.