Safeguarding the Silver Slopes in a Warming World
This year, 2015, was the warmest year ever since records started being kept in 1880.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Today, Aspen is two degrees warmer than in 1970. In those 30 years, the northern hemisphere has lost a million square miles of spring snowpack. Aspen, named for a tree that may not survive the rising temperatures in the Roaring Fork Valley, has lost 30 frost-free days per year.
It’s easy to cast a jaundiced eye at a luxury behemoth like the Aspen Skiing Company, locally known as “Skico.” Your conscience may niggle some while driving your SUV along Route 82, hopping on buses that take you up Brush and Castle Creeks to arrive at the winter wonderlands of Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands. Lifts whir. Gondolas whoosh. Restaurants and hotels bustle.
What a carbon footprint this industry has, yes? It’s easy to judge or condemn, yes?
Hidden under the gloss is a more complex picture: Did you know that SkiCo produces a clean energy volume to equivalent to its usage? Or that SkiCo’s annual carbon footprint has decreased since 2000 – dropping 8.8 percent despite continued growth? Did you know that, for years, professional boarders and skiers have donned skirts, suits and ties to join SkiCo in lobbying congress on climate change?
SkiCo’s new September 2015 website includes a section on “Environment and Sustainability.” Under the “We Are Different” link, here’s what it says about climate and sustainability: “Today, sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company means staying in business forever, which will require, among other things, a stable climate and population, a viable economy over the long term, a strong community, and further down the line, equity, stable and functional democracy, even poverty and disease eradication.”
As SkiCo sees the big picture, it’s all connected. What affects the earth affects us. Especially climate.
SkiCo’s 2014 Sustainability Report declares climate change “the greatest threat facing humanity, not to mention the ski industry. Because the problem is so big, the fix won’t come through changing light bulbs; government must act.”
Meet Auden Schendler, SkiCo’s vice president of sustainability for the past 15 years. Before SkiCo, he worked with Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute conducting corporate sustainability research. Schendler not only wrote the book “Getting Green Done,” he’s published extensively on sustainability, clean energy and global warming. His work appears in publications ranging from newspapers to the Harvard Business Review, High Country News and online sites like the Huffington Post and Grist.
Schendler speaks with pride of two activist missions early in his SkiCo career: “One was to lobby congressional members on a federal renewable energy standard. That was an eye opener, a taste of citizenship, and a great experience everyone should have.” The second was testifying before a congressional committee. “That was one of the great experiences of my life, right up there with kayaking the Grand Canyon or delivering uniforms to Kosovo after the war. It was amazing to see government at work.”
SkiCo has been to Washington eight times in the last three years. More trips are in the pipeline. Partnerships with big trade groups such as Snowsports Industries America, the National Ski Areas Association and Protect Our Winters amplify SkiCo’s voice, enabling them to bring in climate speakers and to lobby Washington more powerfully.
The trips are often quite effective. A 2014 Sustainability Report published by Aspen Skiing Company (ASC) states, “In 2013, ASC helped to pass the first air quality rule in the nation to regulate methane leakage from drilling operations. Methane leakage from wellhead to power plant can more than counter the carbon benefits of using natural gas over coal. Stopping leakage is a key to solving the climate problem. Now, other states have a model… It’s likely the legislation will be copied in places like Wyoming, New York and Pennsylvania.”
SkiCo is also active locally, working with Pitkin County, the City of Aspen and local nonprofits such as the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Says Schendler, “Political leadership is essential because climate is a big problem that is global in scale. Most people want to hear about what our resort is doing to cut our carbon footprint. We’re doing a lot, but unfortunately that work is irrelevant when it comes to solving the global problem. So the most important thing we can do as a business, and the most important thing individuals can do, is get politically active. Tell your elected officials you want them to solve the climate problem.”
SkiCo’s website facilitates this with a “Take Action” section that links readers to their state and national representatives. Schendler also says that the company is “wide open” to community input. “We work hard to embrace the idea that we don’t have all the answers, but that we can get to the right answer if we’re open to conversations.”
SkiCo’s own take-action steps include an Energy Reduction Plan that sets goals with deliverables and timelines. That 2008 plan led to hiring SkiCo’s first-ever energy manager, Aaron Shaffer. Under Shaffer’s leadership, the Little Nell hotel received a significant energy overhaul that resulted in CO2 emissions savings of 300 tons a year.
These days, all new SkiCo buildings and renovations are designed to meet company energy codes that are often far more stringent than local codes.
Although it’s not always visible, SkiCo also invests intensively in clean energy. As you sail over that small pond beneath the Village Express lift on Fanny Hill, you might not realize that the pond is a micro-hydroelectric plant. It generates 150,000 clean kilowatt hours each year, keeping 150 tons of possible CO2 out of the atmosphere.
SkiCo has invested $1.1 million in 147 kW solar array at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. It generates 200,000 kilowatts – enough electricity to power 20 homes – and it averts 200 tons of CO2 annually. SkiCo owns five other solar arrays; they power employee housing, the Sundeck, the Aspen Highlands Patrol Headquarters and a premier suite at the Little Nell.
In 2013, SkiCo partnered in developing a methane-capturing power plant at the Elk Creek Coal Mine in Somerset, Colorado. “It’s the first of its kind in the West and the largest in existence,” says Schendler. “That project cut four percent of Holy Cross’s entire carbon footprint, greening the entire service area.”
The benefits to this clean energy are multi-fold. Because leaking methane has a “warming” capacity 86 times that of CO2, Skico’s 2014 Sustainability Report states that removing it eliminates “three times the carbon dioxide equivalent that would have been created generating that power at our local utility.” Each year, the Elk Creek methane plant earns $150,000 in revenue while generating 24 million kilowatt hours of energy: enough to power four ski resorts, 17 restaurants and two luxury hotels.
Says Schendler, “We integrate operational sustainability into everything we do. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect or that we have no impact – far from it. But we’re trying to run this business, which is an economic engine and a huge part of the job and the tax base, in the least damaging way – and maybe even in a restorative way.”