Vail Resorts’ zero emissions pledge reignites ski industry’s climate dialogue
July 31, 2017
Colorado's High Country received a sudden spark to its conversation on carbon neutrality last week as Vail Resorts, Inc., announced its pledge to wholly eliminate emissions and environmental impacts where it runs ski areas by the year 2030.
Last week, the owner and operator of Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort in Summit County issued the target of a net-zero footprint on the local electrical grid, waste to the area's landfill and effects on the region's forests and wildlife habitats with new development. The commitment, which will include annual progress reports through software tracking and outside monitoring, also involves joining the RE100 initiative — a collaborative effort among some of the world's influential companies to each eventually hit 100 percent renewable energy.
Based on feedback from leading sustainability organizations, Vail set forth a robust action plan that entails expanding recycling and composting programs and encouraging vendors to reduce their use of packaging. The Broomfield, Colorado, resort company also stated it would invest $25 million in energy-saving innovations like improved snowmaking equipment, grooming efficiencies and green building designs.
"As our company's global operations and footprint have grown, we've now reached a scale and size as a company to reasonably consider renewable energy projects that can offset our footprint and support the environmental commitments of the communities, states and countries where we operate," Rob Whittier, Vail Resorts' director of sustainability, said in a written statement. "It's smart business and good for the environment."
The "Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint" drive goes further in steps toward results, for instance aiming to divert 50 percent of all waste by 2020 en route to redirecting all refuse to more sustainable pathways a decade later. Planting an acre of forest for each one displaced by resort operations and working directly with regional and national governments to create more local renewable energy on the grid are other hallmarks of the push.
"This could reactivate the whole conversation around here," said Thad Noll, county assistant manager. "There's so much opportunity for solar here that we're not really taking advantage of and this could really turn the tides in helping Summit County get into the new era of renewable energy."
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With Vail's tremendous purchasing power, Noll imagined scenarios where the resort company not only buys renewable energy credits to offset its own extensive annual electrical consumption, but assists homeowners in the community to obtain rooftop panels that contribute to the stock of available renewable energy. Developing more public electric car charging stations is another possibility he said the county would love to see come to fruition from any new partnerships with Vail Resorts.
"This is something really positive to grab onto, and use this and really try to do something together," said Noll. "This kind of thing may give us some big opportunities to look to the future and figure out how to make more use of renewable energy. That's something we all maybe have the same eye on."
Vail hired Whittier as its first sustainability director in February 2016, and the announcement last week follows up on these environmentally focused attempts to counter global warming while also protecting its own business interests. And with recent estimates placing the heating of the earth at roughly 7-to-11 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100 — in turn reducing snowpack in the western United States between 25 and 100 percent over that time — it appears there's no time like the present to ramp up efforts.
The ski industry's work to combat climate change is not new, however, particularly those measures spearheaded by Aspen Skiing Co. Furthermore, the state's ski trade group that represents all but Vail's four ski areas has worked to promote energy conservation, sustainable construction and enhanced snowmaking techniques as priorities with its 22 member resorts, as well as down in Denver at the Capitol.
"The name of the game is we're weather-dependent, we're snow-dependent, and we've known that since long before climate change was a thing," said Chris Linsmayer, Colorado Ski Country USA's public affairs director. "We're always looking for legislation, policy decisions and smart policies to continue to reduce emissions at the local, state and federal levels, and our resorts spend a lot of time on guest education on this as well."
Buying renewable energy credits, incentivizing carpooling and offering composting in resort cafeterias are examples of strategies Colorado ski areas have implemented over the years to do their part. No easy solutions exist, though, and it's an ever-evolving process, even if the ski industry was an early adopter nationally among private enterprise.
"Efforts to combat carbon emissions and sustainability are ongoing," said Linsmayer, noting the sharing of ideas and best practices across the industry. "But it's not like there's some sort of silver bullet to this."
Three weeks ago, Gov. John Hickenlooper committed the state to emissions reductions through an executive order — an action supported by both Vail Resorts and Colorado Ski Country USA. But in a charged federal climate that saw President Trump declare in June the country's withdrawal from a landmark international climate change commitment known as the Paris Agreement, lobbying for progressive environmental guidelines is also an important piece of the ski industry's overall game plan.
"Vail Resorts recognizes the significant potential for public policies to positively affect renewable energy advances and climate change, and part of our Epic Promise commitment is specifically to advocate to bring on more renewable clean energy," said Whittier. "We believe improving our energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy is not a political issue."