Opinion: How green can skiing be? Take the train

Newsroom Weather Opinion: How green can skiing be? Take the train

Skiing, snowboarding, snowsports in general: can they ever really be synonymous with green living? What does green skiing even mean? How can you tell the difference between those resorts that are genuinely trying to cut their CO2 emissions (or at least balance them out) and those resorts that claim to care as a marketing gimmick?

It’s clear that resorts are greening up; from the highest wind turbine in the world on the Gutsch above Andermatt in Switzerland to becoming ISO14001 approved (the worldwide standard of environmental management and ultimate green stamp) resorts are doing their bit. Can our sport truly go hand in hand with green values?

wind turbine above Andermatt, Switzerland
This wind turbine sits high above Andermatt in Switzerland on the Gutsch. -YouTube

Let’s break it down. The ski industry relies, thrives even, on a torrent of skiers and snowboarders who pay for a ski vacation and end up having such a good time that, fingers crossed, they’ll come back and do it again the following year, and the year after that, and the one after.

Many variables

There are a lot of variables involved that determine whether a ski holiday can be green; what a resort does is just one piece of the green puzzle and according to a 2007 study by a French government agency and NGO Mountain Riders you’re a rather large piece. They found that 73 percent of an average ski resort’s carbon footprint is created by a visitor’s mode of transport while 2 percent of emissions come from lift services and pistes.

Catching the train to the Alps is planet friendly, smart, and easy.  A SkiRail Map that shows how the rail network connects with ski resorts was published and the snowcarbon website, winner of a coveted Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award, features numerous resorts that are easily reachable by train. So getting there is one rather meaty chunk of what we mean when we talk about green skiing.

Val d'Isere carbon footprint
Thousands of visitors flock to Val d’sere each week creating a large carbon footprint to be mitigated.

Stats in perspective

But let’s put the above statistic into perspective. If posh resort Val d’Isere in France draws 65,000 visitors a week (and one-eighth arrive in private jets) then the total carbon footprint created by means of transportation is bound to be pretty huge. Other contributors, such as heating and electricity in tourist accommodation which produces 19 percent of a resort’s carbon emissions in a year, are going to pale in comparison. That doesn’t mean they’re not generating their fair share though.

When we tried to find out just how much energy your average chair lift uses we found it near impossible to get a straight answer. Why? Because as Hunter Sykes, partner and consultant at Coldstream Sustainability Group, told us there is no such thing as an average ski lift. He said: “There are high-speed lifts, fixed-grip lifts and surface lifts and these are then broken down into whether or not they are top or bottom drive lifts, which affects their efficiency.” Hunter harnessed a guess at between 8kW for surface tows and up to 800kW for high-speed detachable gondolas which still kind of leaves us in the dark.

In one case study conducted just over a decade ago (not many of these floating around)  Arapahoe Basin (A-Basin) compared the costs and environmental impacts of a bottom-drive lift and a top-drive lift. The installation of the former would have cost them approximately $1,200,000 while a top-drive lift was estimated to cost between 10 to 20 percent less in terms of initial materials and it would have required 10 to 15 percent less horsepower. The analysis was that, if the lift ran for eight hours a day for 175 days, A-Basin could save up to $26,800 over 10 years and emissions would be reduced by over 25 tons of CO2 per year. The verdict? A-Basin elected to install a bottom-drive lift due to unforeseen costs and because these lifts are more convenient to install and operate. The resort couldn’t justify the extra short-term spend for the benefit of a few tons of saved emissions.

But fast forward 10 years and in terms of ski lifts, 2008 saw the world’s first solar-powered T-Bar lift transporting skiers to the tops of mountains in [R702R, Westendorf], Austria and more recently a tiny resort in Tenna, Switzerland, has followed suit. There, physicist Franz Baumgartner has designed clever solar modules that follow the sun’s path continuously and which adjust their angle every 10 minutes. The advantage of a two-axis system, he says, is that it should produce an estimated additional energy yield of 26 percent. Lifts that power themselves and with energy to spare, go figure. The lift is expected to be ready for December 2011. As for Arapahoe Basin, the resort issued a press release in February 2009 which stated that it has been offsetting 100 percent of its electricity use with wind power since February 2008.

Offsetting electricity use

And it’s not the only resort purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs). A report by the National Geographic Society revealed that 22 ski resorts in the US use RECs to offset 100 percent of their electricity use. It sounds like a step in the right direction but most people are confused about how they actually work. Neither Greenpeace nor Friends of the Earth could comment on their use because they hadn’t looked into the subject.

The basic premise is that credits are issued to electricity companies that produce renewable electricity and these are then sold on. A REC, therefore, represents an attribute of energy created when renewable electricity is generated. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency says: “RECs are increasingly seen as the “currency” of renewable electricity and green power markets. They can be bought and sold between multiple parties, and they allow their owners to claim that renewable electricity was produced to meet the electricity demand they create”. So resorts are neutralizing their CO2 emissions – or so the theory goes.

One resort that is committed to educating skiers and riders about the emissions it produces is physically showing them by pumping a steam ring for every ton of CO2it emits. It’s not so much a resort as a rubbish incineration plant which will double as a ski slope with three runs down the roof. The ski-plant, called Amagerforbraending, in Denmark believes the symbol “will allow the common Copenhagener to grasp CO2 emissions in a straightforward way.” Innovative and educational – bring it on, we say.

There are other resorts out there that are embarking on exciting projects. Canton Valais in Switzerland has joined forces with the European Union-backed ACQWA (Assessing Climate Change impacts on the Quantity and Quality of Water) to research the future of water in the mountains. In an interview with swissinfo.ch. Project Coordinator and Head of Environmental Sciences at Geneva University Martin Beniston said: “This is going to be a direct link from science to policy and vice versa. It’s a nice step forward in a way.” And a step that other resorts would benefit from following.

A criticism of the industry generally is that it’s been slow to adopt green strategies but we are seeing a shift in attitudes having a ripple effect. There are more individuals than ever before that want to collaborate and who want to engage in intelligent and sustainable practices.

Recently, in Morzine more than 30 chalets signed up to a new voluntary programme to reduce water and energy consumption in collaboration with muchbetteradventures (website championing sustainable travel) and which has received backing from independent charity, The Travel Foundation. The charity has its own ongoing Make Snowsports Greener campaign where they advise resorts on how to make savings of up to 25 percent on utility bills.

So that’s all we’ve got time for – and there is a lot we haven’t touched on like biodiesel for groomers, four-stroke engines and snow canons. But we hope it’s given you some food for thought. As for our conclusion? Snowsports can be greener but everybody needs to do their bit. Only time will tell if it’s enough. In the meantime be savvy, beware of greenwashing, and take the train.

Ski train save energy
A green way to get to the ski resort is by train like this one to Wengen.
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