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Pseudo-Prediction #4: My Lingering Worries Over Skiers & Climate Change

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This isn’t so much a prediction as a worry. Let me explain with a quote from a guest post by Alex Kaufman:

“The amount of green talk throughout skidom is exhaustive. We see it everyday…

In the end this is a business built on the wealthy travelling long distances to locations cut into pristine wilderness so that they can enjoy a sport that consumes an obscene amount of fossil fuels to provide.”

Why would I let him say something so direct that paints our industry in a hypocritical light?

Because he’s right.

The Tricky Torch
A lot of groups are trying to get skiers to carry the torch in the fight against climate change.

And why not? What better motivation can you find than losing a sport with such deep emotional ties and roots. But if this initiative succeeds, I can also picture it backfiring no matter how needed or well-meaning these efforts are.

Let me see if I can paint the imperfect picture I’m seeing.

One Day
Let’s fast forward a year or two or ten. These groups have succeeded and skiers are prominent, influential leaders in a crusade to curb rising temps or even just the most popular group among fighters.

Then one day a news guy, looking for a story, notices what Alex pointed out. His headline and pre-commercial hook might read,

Climate Change Leadership May be Causing Global Warming:
John Doe, leader of Climate Change group XYZ, drives 5 hours in an SUV alone, every weekend, to support a company that only exists because of deforestation and a massive coal-fed electric bill.

And he wants YOU to change your lifestyle to support his habit…”

The Result
Our culture LOVES a scandal and that’s exactly what this would look like: a group telling other people to change their behavior to solve a problem that appears to be exacerbated by their own.

It won’t matter what our impact really is, it will matter what it looks like. This may not happen in 2014 and it may not be bigger than a local paper, but in our headline-hungry world that will spin anything for some pageviews, I can’t help but think that, on some scale, it’s inevitable.

  • Jeff Cospolich

    This is so on point. I love the environment as much as anyone, but have always felt that ski resorts are the ultimate hypocrites since they require so much energy to run. No matter where that energy comes from, it’s still being spent for a very elitist activity.

    • Thanks, Jeff. I definitely hesitated posting this, but am glad to see I’m not alone with these thoughts. It’s hard to admit our hypocrisy in this department, but if we’re going to make such a public push as an industry, it’s an important thing to be honest about.

  • AK

    As much as it may be a hypocritical reality, it’s so unpleasant to talk about, with such obvious implications that maybe it’s better not to at all. Sort of like worrying about the day you’re going to die, instead of living. But yes, at some point the pot will call the kettle. Though maybe (hopefully for the biz) that will take a long while.

    • I think one of the big pieces here isn’t so much the actual impact, but the perceived impact. I really have no idea how much impact a resort on a weekend has versus an NFL stadium or big box store Amazon UPS chain or a hundred other businesses we frequent, but when you account for the visible stuff – SUVs, driving, cutting down trees, electricity – it looks bad.

      But if something like this happens, I wonder if resorts like Jiminy Peak who have a massive wind turbine on their mountain (again, no idea on the impact but it looks good…at least in terms of being green) might have some form of a “get out of jail free” card.

  • Shredthegnarpow

    Good work. I could really pop off about this, but I think you have done a great job in a few words. Well done!

    • Thanks, definitely a tricky subject, but I think it’s an important possibility to be honest about.

  • Kevin Forrest

    I think the best course of action would be to get as green as possible within economic restraints. If the critics come calling then at least they are showing good faith, and in some cases innovation.

    I would also contend that in many cases ski areas actually manage their forests very well. The US Forest Service has huge amounts of acreage to contend with. Ski areas, most of the time, can do a much better job of forest management because they have a smaller piece of the pie to work on. They also have good erosion control programs to manage their foot print on the environment. In addition to being good forest stewards the can also support fire fighting efforts using their snow making systems.

    Here are a few ideas I had below:

    1. Even if they can’t all afford a wind turbine, which can produce anywhere from 250W to 7 MW, they can participate in green energy power purchase like PNM’s Sky Blue.

    2.They can look to alternative fuels, but because most ski area equipment runs on diesel switching to bio-diesel can be problematic in colder temperatures due to the “cold filter plug point” (there are heated filters available). Their stationary engines (yes, some lifts still run on diesel) could use electricity to heat the fuel to avoid the filter issue, but now we are back to burning coal so we can burn a clean fuel.

    3. Natural gas could be an option as there are many engines being manufactured today that can replace standard petroleum diesel engines with natural gas (John Deere, CAT, Cummins, etc.). Ski areas would be an ideal candidate for this since their fleets are “return to base” rather than over the road allowing them to be fueled more easily. This puts them in the realm of city buses, trash trucks, and local delivery fleets.

    4. The resorts could also buy large generators (reciprocating or turbine) that run on natural gas and power their lifts, air compressors, and snow guns which would significantly reduce emissions compared to coal fired plants. With the current cost of natural gas being low cost this could be a fiscally sound option, until we start exporting large amounts of natural gas which is likely to occur in the next few years. Of course the fracking argument comes into play here. Snow Summit actually has their own engine powered electrical plant to power their large electric compressors, and they use the heat off the diesel engines to de-ice walkways (co-generation is awesome),

    5. If they have hot springs near by you can use organic rankine cycle turbines, or let a company like Ormat Technologies use their turbines, extract the heat from these geothermal resources and make energy like they are doing at Mammoth.

    6. They could install passive solar heating panels in conjunction with a wood fired boiler to help heat buildings or wash water. With all of the forest management many ski areas have a lot of wood, which is a renewable resource. Here people will argue that wood does not burn as cleanly as natural gas.

    7. If they have a river running through the resort they could possibly leverage some hydro electric, but this is not very feasible for large amounts of energy production, but is at least exploring an alternative form of energy.

    8. A company called INOV8 has waste oil boilers that can burn vegetable oils, natural gas, and other waste industrial oils. Ski areas make plenty of waste vegetable oil, as well as other waste motor oils that could be used to help use these products. I have used their products before and they are very clean burning and make use of waste.

    The questions is what will it take to get resort owners to engage some of these types of alternative energy generation? The other problem is that almost every one of the solutions above can be argued against by one environmental group or another. Even the wind turbines are under fire for killing birds right now.

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