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Ski Towns And Businesses Are Exploring The Financial Benefits Of Going Green

Photo of Main Street in Park City, UT.
Park City will host the first MT2030 Net Zero Summit this week, where more than 40 mountain community governments, NGO's and climate-oriented businesses will convene to discuss environmental strategies and goals. Mayor Andy Beerman hopes the city will be

Setting environmental goals these days isn’t just about projecting an image — for many companies, it’s also good for business.

That’s why the recent decision by the country’s four biggest ski resort owners - Alterra Mountain Company, Boyne Resorts, POWDR, and Vail Resorts - to join a coalition of mountain towns and major ski organizations to set ambitious climate goals, could be viewed as much as a reach for public goodwill as a savvy financial strategy.

The group behind the effort is called Mountain Towns 2030, and it wants to help participating towns in the Mountain West region reach net-zero carbon emissions in the next 10 years. That means they may not necessarily reduce all of their carbon output, but will try to offset what they produce with things like renewable energy and more efficient buildings. 

“We think it’s an aggressive goal, but we think it needs to be an aggressive goal,” said Park City Mayor Andy Beerman, who helped organize the group. “And we do believe it’s achievable if we keep the pedal down and continue to have the strong community support we’ve had.”

What makes such lofty statements potentially go beyond the symbolic now is the increasing viability of sustainable energy sources. The cost of renewable energy has dropped over the past decade, to the point where it can compete with traditional fossil fuels. And that is only likely to increase, said Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado.

“These pronouncements are a dime a dozen now,” Boykoff said. But, he added, “with the technology that’s available, with public sentiment, these things are absolutely feasible.” 

How it’s working 

Beerman said reducing emissions has been both an environmental and financial win for Park City. In 2017, the city started seeing notable savings after it swapped its diesel buses for electric, he said. It’s likely to save even more once it builds a solar farm intended to power the entire city, a deal for which is in the final stages. Beerman said he couldn’t reveal the details of the project before the deal was complete, but noted there will be an official announcement in the coming days.

Park City, as part of the Mountain Towns 2030 group and the host of its inaugural conference this week, is one of more than 30 mountain west cities, from Aspen to Moab, and several major ski organizations that have joined together in the hopes of sharing proven environmental strategies and committing to ambitious carbon-reduction goals. 

Finding where differences can be made

Laura Schaffer, POWDR’s sustainability director, said that while there is clearly self-interest at play for most of the parties involved - their businesses largely depend on healthy winters - being sustainable is becoming a necessity. 

“We’re at a point now where this needs to be an integral part of the business,” she said. 

Photo of a tram at Snowbird Ski Resort.
Credit Wikimedia Commons
Snowbird is one of POWDR's ten ski resorts, and one of two in Utah. In 2015, the resort installed solar-powered canons to help with avalanche control.

POWDR has been working on a number of strategies to reduce its carbon footprint, Schaeffer said, with the ultimate goal of reaching net-zero emissions. Whether that’s possible by 2030 for all 10 of its ski resorts is not clear. 

“We’ve chipped away at the low-hanging fruit,” she said, referring to some of the more obvious choices the group has made. Those range from removing inefficient light-bulbs to installing solar panels.But, Schaffer acknowledged, there is plenty more the group can do, and they’re in the process of collecting data to see where the biggest differences can be made. 

In the meantime, Boykoff said that even if Mountain Towns’ promises are little more than hot air, they could still have an impact. Skiing is a privileged activity, he said, and when ski industries are speaking to their audiences, they’re speaking to a consumer base that is generally wealthier and likely to spend more than the average person. That gives them an outsized influence, he said, one that could potentially spread to other areas of the economy. 

Beerman too acknowledged that Park City is a small, wealthy and progessive enclave in a mostly red state, and its actions are only a drop in the bucket. But the more people see environmental practices penciling out, he said, the more they will demand action from local leaders and the companies they support.

“It isn’t about saving the polar bears,” Beerman said. “It’s what our residents and their consumers want.”

Clarification 5:51 p.m. MDT 10/2/19:  This story has been updated to reflect comments from Laura Schaffer, who said that while there is self-interest at play for most of the parties involved in MT2030, being sustainable is a necessity for POWDR. It’s also been updated to show that POWDR’s goal is to be carbon-neutral, though it is not clear when that could happen.

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