Climate Change Challenges Ski Resorts

Climate Change Challenges Ski Resorts
by Audrey McCollum
When Lebanon, N.H. reported an all-time record low of minus 23 degrees in January, global warming seemed like a bad joke. Then Lebanon reported a record high of 50 degrees in early February, and warming seemed real. Actually, scientists believe that erratic regional weather is consistent with global climate change, the term they prefer. And that change may gravely affect the alpine skiing that offers healthy exercise in exquisite wintry landscapes, and provides a major contribution to our New England economy.
“Climate change is a very real threat to the sport,” wrote Vermont’s Bill McCollom in rely to my e-mail query. Seasoned ski coach, racer and writer for ski magazines who lives in Pomfret, he has a broad overview and knows that abundant snowfall here doesn’t contradict scientific findings about the earth. “I am hopeful that technology will evolve to allow areas to make snow at warmer temperatures and … preserve snow cover through sustained periods of warmth,” he said.
However, snowmaking gobbles energy and may produce the very emissions that contribute to climate change ­ a catch-22 commanding attention. And it did receive attention in 2006 at Vermont’s Middlebury College. Students in an environmental economics class pioneered the idea of achieving carbon neutrality in a ski resort. On the basis of their calculations that the carbon dioxide emissions attributable to electric, gas, propane, diesel and biodiesel consumption — including skier transportation to and from the Snow Bowl — amounted to a total of 679.9 tons of CO2 emissions, the college bought carbon offsets costing $7,138 from NativeEnergy. This is a privately held renewable energy company that funds Native American owned and operated wind turbine farms and family owned farm methane projects. The college’s purchase comprised an investment in that work.
One might imagine that the electricity generated by those windmills and derived from methane gas (cow power) was transmitted directly to the Middlebury Snow Bowl, where it powered the ski lifts and snowmaking equipment. Not so. The college continued to buy fuel from its usual sources. But it attempted to compensate for (or offset) its output of greenhouse gases by supporting the development of “green” energy and increasing its supply.
Around the same time, the trio of resorts owned by Tim and Diane Mueller ­ Okemo in Vermont, Sunapee in New Hampshire and Crested Butte in Colorado ­ entered into an agreement whereby the resorts’ release of approximately 18,800 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year was compensated for by investing in 27 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of wind-generated power produced by a Colorado company.
Perhaps spurred by their example, Killlington resort in Vermont began investing in Colorado “green” energy to offset 100% of its CO2 emissions. But, as though playing musical chairs, Okemo and Sunapee — under new ownership but the same management — stopped purchasing offsets this year, according to Bruce McCloy, Director of Marketing and Sales at Mt. Sunapee resort. After two seasons, energy costs to operate the resorts became too high.
Catch-22 again? Maybe not. Conservation became the name of the game.
December skiers who rode up the main chairlift at Suicide Six in Woodstock paralleled a row of tall contraptions that appeared to be aiming a hissing blizzard at The Face, a broad racing trail. Were they windmills gone berserk? No, area manager Chuck Vanderstreet explained. They were HKD Tower Guns, the most energy efficient snow guns now available. It is the production of compressed air that consumes electricity. Older guns required an air to water ratio of 10-1; these unsightly contraptions produce snow at a 1-1 ratio, and feed optimism too.
“Without snowmaking we would be closed today as we have received only eight inches of natural snow this season,” Sunapee’s McCloy wrote on December 16th. “We have purchased 48 energy efficient snow guns in the past two years. At 25 degrees these guns produce twice as much snow as our older guns with only 25% of the compressed air . . . Our kWh consumption is down over the past two years. Diesel fuel use (has been) down 15% in the past two years. Plus we are making more snow … . ”
“The HKD Tower Guns have revolutionized snowmaking and, according to our report from mountain operations this morning, have more than cut in half the energy needed for snowmaking since the days of the original ground guns,” affirmed Michael Doran, Permits and Compliance Coordinator at Okemo on February 5.
The use of electricity is monitored. For example, wrote McCloy, “Mount Sunapee is enrolled in the ISO New England ‘Emergency Demand Response Program.’ (ISO New England is a regional non-profit NGO that monitors use of electricity throughout New England on a minute-to-minute basis.) Sunapee has agreed to shed 100% of its snowmaking load within 30 minutes should ISO New England call an emergency between November and March.” Killington and Okemo have also signed onto that program.
Although snowmaking seems crucial to survival of the sport, snow needs to be packed and smoothed ­ both for the pleasure of skiers and to prevent it from blowing off trails and into the forest. The three large areas that attract many Upper Valley skiers use Biodiesel 10 to power grooming machines and plows. According to McCloy, the “bio” is derived from soy, which is used in a ratio of 10% to 90% petroleum based diesel. However, Bruce Maxham, mountain manager at Suicide Six, has heeded the cautions of the manufacturer of his equipment. Maxham notes that biodiesel is still experimental: it may cause a machine to require more maintenance and burn more fuel.
Yet conservation extends into lodges also, especially in larger areas. Fluorescent light fixtures are updated with energy efficient ballasts and controlled by timers or motion sensors. Office paper and cardboard are recycled, and Killington has printed its trail maps on Forest Stewardship Council paper. And for those essential timeouts, low flush toilets and water conserving faucets in the sinks are being installed in restrooms.
Used kitchen oil is in great demand, sold or given to vendors who use it for vehicle biofuel. But the recycling of cans, bottles and plastic provides a challenge at most resorts. It is indeed labor-intensive, as Vanderstreet said, but that might be considered an asset in this period of tenuous employment. Yet only about 50% of the labeled recycling bins are used at Suicide Six. And Doug Holler, manager of the Dartmouth Skiway, has said that guests there do not cooperate with recycling efforts. Many of these are Dartmouth students and area school groups.
Apparently they make no connection between the opportunity to speed down the mountain on snowboards or the new shaped skis that seem to turn if one simply thinks of an arc ­ no connection between that exhilaration and tossing a hot chocolate cup into the proper bin. No solution has yet been found, said Holler, although Dartmouth has a sustainability officer.
Yet new napkins have appeared on the food counter at Suicide Six. Made of unbleached paper, they are printed with a message on each side: 1) Made with 100% recycled material, and 2) Save the environment one napkin at a time. But management cannot do it alone. Please write me describing your own ideas.
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Published in the Valley News on March 7, ’09. Audrey McCollum can be reached at