Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How green is your snow?

Since Sunday was Earth Day 2012, here’s a quick look at the environmental impacts of skiing, what ski areas are doing to lessen their impact, and actions that individual skiers can take.

Snowmaking and lifts are a ski area's largest consumers of energy.  Gore and Whiteface, where $1 out of every $6 in revenue is spent on energy costs, are representative of the ski industry.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.
There’s no getting around the fact that ski resorts and the activity of skiing leave a large footprint on the environment, particularly in terms of energy consumption. Snowmaking, lifts and grooming utilized by downhill ski resorts have very large energy requirements. Lighting and heat for lodges and other buildings also contribute to a ski area’s carbon footprint. Snowmaking is by far the largest energy consumer, with huge amounts of electricity and/or diesel fuel required to operate air compressors and water pumps.

Water pumps used in Whiteface's snowmaking operation.  Not visible are the eight large air compressors, which consume even greater quantities of electricity.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.
To put this energy consumption into perspective, energy costs can be considered on a per-skier-visit basis. The Olympic Region Development Authority (ORDA), which operates Gore and Whiteface, spent approximately $4.7 million on utilities and fuel for the 12 months ended 3/31/2011. Estimating that two thirds of that expenditure is for Gore and Whiteface (the other third is for other venues including the Olympic Arena, bobsled tracks, etc.), energy costs calculate out to more than $7 per skier visit. Those expenditures represent more than 15% of Gore’s and Whiteface’s gross revenue (ORDA 2010-11 audited financial statements), or $1 out of every $6 the ski areas take in.

Skier transportation to/from ski areas also consumes significant energy. For our family, day trips to Gore represent a 100 mile round-trip. We travel in a relatively fuel efficient small SUV (25 mpg), consuming approximately 4 gallons of gas per round-trip commute to the ski mountain at a cost of roughly $16, or $4 per skier visit (based on $4/gallon gas and 4 skiers in our car). Obviously skiers who commute to the mountain singly, or in less fuel efficient cars, or who travel greater distances may have larger transportation costs. The energy cost of air travel is off the chart.

Although energy use arguably contributes the largest impact to the environment, there are other impacts from skiing to consider as well, including habitat disruption and fragmentation, water quality and visual impacts.

The ski industry is well aware of these environmental impacts, and in 2000 the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) adopted its Sustainable Slopes Environmental Charter to raise the collective environmental performance of the ski industry. Ski areas which endorse the charter – including Gore and Whiteface – use it as a framework for making improvements in their own operations. The NSAA has also adopted a climate change policy and launched a “Keep Winter Cool” campaign with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Sustainable Slopes charter includes 21 principles which address areas such as water quality, energy use, waste reduction and recycling, forest and wetlands management, fish and wildlife management, etc. The principles are voluntary, and ski areas undertake initiatives that make the most sense and provide the greatest impact for their individual operations.

ORDA’s Jon Lundin spoke with me about some of the projects and initiatives that have been undertaken at Gore and Whiteface over the past several years:
  • Both areas purchase energy from renewable sources. At Gore, roughly 7% is certified renewable.
  • Both areas have implemented single stream (aka zero sort) recycling.
  • Numerous energy efficiency projects, including the purchase of 160 low energy snowmaking guns at Gore last year. These guns are the “compact fluorescent lights” of snowmaking, using only 20-25% of the energy of the guns they replace. The new guns at Gore result in an energy savings of approximately $150,000 annually. At Whiteface, various compressor and snowmaking gun upgrades over the past three years have resulted in a 13% reduction in electricity consumption, an annual savings of 2 million kwh.
  • Lighting efficiency upgrades.
  • Building re-use and earth tone color schemes to reduce visual impact.
  • Educational initiatives such as the Northwoods Knowledge signage in Gore’s gondola cabins.

High efficiency snowmaking guns in operation at Gore last winter.  These guns operate at just 20-25% of the energy requirement of the guns they replace.  The 160 guns purchased at Gore last year save $150 thousand in electricity annually, paying for themselves in 4 years.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.

Lundin states “Obviously we work very closely with DEC and APA on environmental compliance. It’s our goal to exceed regulatory compliance in our operations.”

Many skiers place a high priority on environmental concerns, and actions by individual skiers can collectively have a huge positive impact. Here are some specific actions you can take as an environmentally responsible skier:

On the slopes and traveling to the slopes:
  • Practice Leave-No-Trace principles
  • Drive a fuel efficient vehicle
  • Carpool to the ski mountain
  • Ski locally, avoid air travel
  • Remove ski racks from your vehicle at the end of the ski season to improve fuel efficiency

Off the slopes:
  • Purchase the least polluting, most fuel efficient vehicle that meets your needs
  • Purchase energy efficient home appliances
  • Use LED or compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Improve your home’s energy efficiency
  • Carpool, walk, or use public transportation when possible
  • Consider purchasing electricity for your home from renewable sources
  • Consider purchasing carbon offsets
  • Practice the three Rs to produce less waste: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle


  1. Excellent post, Jeff. It is amazing how many "green-minded" people set aside their principles for the lure of skiing, myself included.

  2. Thanks SBR, I always appreciate your comments / insight. In my opinion it’s not necessary to set environmental principles aside in order to enjoy skiing. An individual can still be “green-minded” even if they use a car, heat their home, or occasionally travel by airplane. Or ski. But responsible consumers should be aware of the environmental costs of their actions, and then make the best decision for themselves taking those environmental costs into account. For me, the benefits of skiing are “worth it,” including the environmental impact. I’d also argue that the environmental costs of ORDA’s operations as a whole are “worth it” in terms of the $300 +/- million economic benefit to the region and opportunities for people to be exposed to, recreate in, and engage with the outdoors. The Earth has a lot of friends because a parent took their kid hiking, fishing, sailing, climbing, camping, surfing, canoeing, skiing.

  3. Your $1 out of $6 statistic is eye opening.

  4. Interesting post. I would add to drive a "used" fuel efficient vehicle. It costs over 100,000,000 BTUs to make most new cars, at a minimum. Think of it as at least 1,000 gallons of gasoline before it is driven its first mile. Some vehicles are almost double that.

  5. An interesting perspective on how climate change may impact skiing in the Adirondacks appears here: Slush Pile- Whiteface Skiing and Climate Change. Although I don't agree with all of the author's arguments, it's a thought provoking, well researched and well written piece.