A sense of green urgency in Park City
December 27, 2013
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories by Aspen Journalism about the energy-efficiency and sustainability efforts of various ski areas. The first looked at Aspen Skiing Co.'s coal-mine methane project, the second at Vail Resorts.
PARK CITY, Utah — We were descending the stairs to leave Park City Mountain Resort's main base-area plaza when a guy pulled up swiftly in an electric golf cart and stopped Brent Giles, the company's chief sustainability officer.
The man in the cart was Mike Testa, of the resort's building-maintenance crew, and he wanted Giles to know that someone was leaving a dishwasher motor running all night long in the Legacy Lodge.
Testa was concerned about the wasted energy, and he knew that Giles, whose job is energy efficiency and conservation, could set the matter straight. Giles listened carefully, thanked Testa for the information and then asked Testa to send him an email reminder.
“I remember years when we’d have two to three feet of natural snow by October 15. ... That date has now moved to about November 15.”
Park City Mountain Resort
"I'll call Dierdre, who's the director of food and beverage, and she'll fix it," Giles said afterward. So, no big deal. Problem solved. But the brief interaction was telling for a couple of reasons:
One, sustainability and energy efficiency depend, to a great degree, on human behavior — turning off lights, turning down thermostats and changing habits. When people forget or decide not to try, then a sustainability officer picks up the slack. Sustainability officers are organizational energy cops, and just like law-and-order cops, they need tips to track down violations. In this case, Testa was Giles' tipster.
Two, tips like Testa's are indicators of a conservation-oriented culture. During the height of winter, Powdr Corp, which owns the Park City ski area and eight other resorts, employs roughly 1,500 people at Park City alone. The only way an organization of that size can track and reduce energy consumption is to foster a culture where everyone takes ownership of a shared goal. Such a culture encourages electricians, mechanics, snowcat drivers and building-maintenance guys to sound alarms about unnecessary waste.
Powdr's culture of environmental stewardship has helped the company reduce its carbon footprint by nearly 60 percent in roughly seven years. In 2008, the company began purchasing enough renewable-wind-energy credits to offset its annual electricity usage. That practice continues alongside specific energy-efficiency projects at Park City and other Powdr resorts, including Copper Mountain in Colorado, Vermont's Killington, Mt. Bachelor in Oregon and Boreal Mountain near Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Powdr has invested $6 million overall in energy and sustainability initiatives, including a joint venture to power a Killington gondola using methane gas from cow manure.
"We're privately held, and the owners of Powdr believe this is a moral issue, so they set aside a portion of revenues annually for these initiatives," Giles said.
He has noticed some of Aspen Skiing Co.'s energy- and climate-related efforts.
"Aspen's lucky; they're driven that way," Giles said. "We feel like we are, too."
Powdr's initiatives run the ski-area gamut, from efficient snowmaking to LED lighting retrofits to four-stroke snowmobiles and biofuel-powered snowcats. Based in Park City, Powdr runs ski resorts exclusively and has not expanded into real estate development and associated businesses.
"I'd definitely say Park City Mountain Resort has been one of Utah's leading ski resorts on overall sustainability and putting their money where their mouth is as far as energy and efficiency," said Sara Baldwin Auck, senior policy and regulatory associate at the nonprofit Utah Clean Energy.
She gives Powdr credit for both cleaning up its own house and advocating for broader environmental action at the state and federal levels. However, she wishes she saw more advocacy from the ski industry in general.
"In my opinion, (the ski industry) should be leading on these issues because their entire business model depends on a reliable, stable climate," Baldwin Auck said. "Secondly, they're a leading industry in the state, and they have a lot of power and influence."
Aspen resembles Park City in many respects, a mining town reinvented as a tourism destination, with ski slopes that descend directly into the city. Aspen, however, has a skiing company, a city government and even a business community in close alignment on climate issues. Furthermore, the state of Colorado has established renewable-energy standards for all electric utilities with an eye toward building a clean-energy economy.
In Park City and Utah generally, the clean-energy movement is more nascent, and Utah's conservative Legislature prefers voluntary green programs to potentially burdensome mandates. Nonetheless, the state is making strides, and businesses like Powdr are showing the way.
The town of Park City is a blotch of political blue in a reliably red state known widely as the home of the Mormon church. When it comes to energy consumption, Park City environmental project manager Matt Abbott says city residents are generally green-minded but haven't yet done the hard work to reduce per-capita consumption.
"Like a lot of ski towns, we're kind of fat and happy up here," he said.
In a recent "Ski Town Showdown," Park City beat Aspen in a contest among city employees to use less energy and water, recycle more materials and generally live clean and green. Still, Abbott says, 60 percent of Park City workers live outside the city, and no regional transit system exists to efficiently carry them to work.
As a whole, Park City residents consume electricity and natural gas at roughly twice the rate of average Americans, Abbott said.
"At the same time," he added, "we have a willingness to do something about that."
Earlier this year, the Summit Community Solar program persuaded 59 homeowners from Park City and neighboring towns to install solar panels in their homes and yards, and it ended up creating 327 kilowatts of power generation. By purchasing panels in bulk and arranging for lower permit fees, the program provided an easy way for residents to go green.
"Through this effort, they now have six times more solar than they had before," Baldwin Auck said. "I think people feel more comfortable with it if they know it's not just them."
The Park City government also is investing where it can to reduce its own power consumption by retrofitting municipal buildings and installing rooftop solar panels. The city's Water Department also aims to lower its own energy use by generating hydroelectric power.
"The Water Department uses 50 percent of our energy," Abbott said. "They've sited and assessed two spots for microhydro turbines."
Of all the electricity generated in Utah, 76 percent comes from coal-fired plants. Three percent comes from renewable sources such as solar and wind, and the remainder is natural gas.
The state Legislature has set a goal of having 20 percent renewable energy by 2025, but Baldwin Auck says the initiative is voluntary and hasn't had much impact. On the other hand, a "net metering" law that allows property owners to install renewables and sell their home-generated power back to their utility has been a huge success.
"Utah is one of the four leading states for net-metering connections," Baldwin Auck said. "The majority of Utahns want to see more renewable energy in their state, and they want clean electrons coming into their home."
It could be argued that, when it comes to energy conservation and efficiency, the general public is ahead of the institutional players in Utah.
The state's largest electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power, says it generates the bulk of its power — 60 percent — from coal, but renewables presently represent 16-17 percent of its portfolio.
Park City Mountain Resort has used those incentives to lower its costs on multiple occasions.
Meanwhile, the state government is moving to enable green-power development. Passed in 2012, Senate Bill 12, also known as the eBay bill, allows companies (chiefly large energy users) to buy clean power from energy developers or generate and transmit clean power themselves. EBay, which lobbied for the bill along with other high-tech players, used the legislation to erect a major solar-generation facility to supply its data center in South Jordan, Utah.
"Within the last decade, we've seen a cultural shift not only in awareness but also in viability (of clean-energy technologies)," Baldwin Auck said. "Does that mean we're there? No."
Back at the slopes in Park City, Powdr's Giles admits that the company's most environmentally friendly move would be to "shut the doors, turn out the lights and close the chairlifts."
But that's a lousy business plan. So Powdr continues to work at reducing its environmental impact. In 2006, Park City commissioned its own study on the effects of climate change, and here's how the resort summarizes the worst-case scenario: "By 2075 the climate in the Park City area will be cool enough to support an all-winter snow pack at only the highest reaches of Park City Mountain Resort, or from approximately 8,500 to 10,000 feet above sea level, cutting the resort's skiable/ridable terrain by as much as two-thirds."
The company sees this as a fairly urgent matter. So, irrespective of Utah's culture and politics, Powdr continues to chip away at the problem. Park City Mountain Resort recently installed 146 solar panels on two of its base-area buildings, which is enough energy generation to supply as many as four average U.S. homes. It's not a huge amount of energy, but Giles says the panels' educational value made them worthwhile.
"You have to call attention to this stuff," he said.
Ongoing changes to Park City's snowmaking systems — which represent roughly half of the resort's power consumption — will have a bigger impact on both finances and carbon emissions. In the past five years, snow guns have run for an average of 1,200 hours per season, more time than the chairlifts (although concentrated at the front end of the season). The 3,300-acre resort can now make snow on roughly 350 acres.
"I remember years when we'd have 2 to 3 feet of natural snow by Oct. 15," said Giles, who started with Park City as a mechanic 35 years ago. "That date has now moved to about Nov. 15."
This puts Park City, along with other resorts, in the position of having to make more artificial snow even though the energy-consumptive practice contributes to climate change.
Fortunately, air compressors and snow guns have become much more efficient in recent years. Park City recently spent $220,000 to install new tower guns at its Neff Land (sponsored by Neff, the headwear and clothing maker) terrain park, and the system ended up being 95 percent more efficient.
"We expect to save over $40,000 annually on electricity because of efficiency just on this project," Giles said.
If that prediction proves true, then the project will pay for itself in four to five years. That's good news environmentally and economically, but the fact remains that nobody knows exactly how climate change will play out on the slopes.
"We're chasing the snowline up the hill with snowmaking, and that's just a fact of doing business as a ski area," Giles said. "Sometimes it gets kind of discouraging, but we've got to try."
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