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Snow Bowl tackles global warming head-on

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- The Middlebury Snow Bowl may not have high-speed chairlifts or more than 15 named trails. But it can claim something that no other US ski resort can: It is totally and completely green.

Middlebury College, which owns and operates the Snow Bowl, is paying to offset every molecule of carbon dioxide -- the primary "greenhouse gas" that contributes to global warming -- emitted from groomers, lift operations, base lodge heating, off-site electric generation used to power lights and appliances, and even the carbon dioxide emitted by the cars skiers and snowboarders use to drive there. The college's alpine and cross-country ski teams are also on board, paying to offset their air and car travel to and from training and races, as well as the electricity used in the coaches' offices.

The idea was initially hatched by Thomas Hand, a Middlebury graduate, and Jonathan Isham, his environmental economics professor . After Hand graduated, Isham presented the idea to five other students in his environmental economics class , three of whom were on the college's alpine ski team.

"Part of the class [was] to work on a project with a community partner," says Clayton Reed, a junior and one of the college's top alpine ski racers. "We decided to take up the Snow Bowl project because we were up there all the time anyway and had the connections. With some help from others, we were able to really push the college to do it."

Hand, who works for NativeEnergy, a Native American-owned company in Charlotte, Vt., that funds Native American, farmer-owned, and community-based renewable energy projects, helped the students calculate the Snow Bowl's "carbon footprint," the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from ski area operations, plus the amount emitted from skiers' and snowboarders' cars as they drive to and from the ski area: a total of 679.9 tons.

The college then agreed to purchase $7,138 in carbon offsets from NativeEnergy, which is putting this money toward developing two new renewable energy projects that add electricity to the grid: a wind farm in South Dakota and a methane project in Pennsylvania.

With global warming threatening the ski industry, many other ski resorts are investing in green power. The National Ski Areas Association reports that as of December, 51 resorts in 14 states were purchasing renewable energy credits. Currently, 22 of the 51 claim they are "powered 100 percent by green energy," the association reports.

Five of the 22 are owned by Vail Resorts Inc.: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone in Colorado, and Heavenly in California. The company announced last August that it will "offset 100 percent of its energy use" by purchasing nearly 152,000 megawatt-hours of wind energy for its five mountain resorts and other holdings. This purchase makes Vail Resorts the second largest purchaser of wind power of all corporations in the United States and will help the company avoid emitting 105,500 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere this winter.

While this investment in the environment is to be applauded, claims of going "100 percent green" may be misleading.

"There's the perception out there that the Aspens and Okemos offsetting electrical use [makes them] 'green,' " Peter Mackey, Snow Bowl general manager, says. "It's 'green-washing.' "

Mackey explains that the Snow Bowl's 679.9 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted from all energy consumption: electric, gasoline, heating oil, propane, diesel, and biodiesel. Less than 10 percent of the ski area's energy consumption is from electricity, with diesel being the leading carbon dioxide emitter.

"How folks enhance their environmental image is deceptive," he says. "If they're only offsetting electricity, it's only a small percentage of emissions. They're not offsetting diesel and gas."

"People need to make sure that they are not overstating their environmental stewardship," says Billy Connelly, senior adviser on marketing and communications for NativeEnergy. " We're careful to not say we've done more than we have. In a voluntary market, we survive on our impeccable reputation."

Connelly points out that more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from people driving to venues, a number NativeEnergy determined from its work offsetting carbon dioxide emissions from events such as a St. Louis Rams- Philadelphia Eagles NFL football game in 2005 and Dave Matthews Band concerts.

Using predetermined equations, Connelly calculated that a family of four flying from Boston to Vail would release 7.6 tons of carbon dioxide, almost two tons per person, into the air on the round-trip flight alone. This is about the same amount of carbon dioxide that the family car would emit in a year (assuming the family owns a medium-size car and drives about 15,000 miles per year).

For this reason, Hand and the Middlebury students considered it crucial that the Snow Bowl offset emissions from skier travel to and from the area. But the Snow Bowl, with only three double chairlifts serving a scant 110 acres of terrain, attracts a relatively small, local following. For resorts like Vail, which recorded more than 1.6 million skier visits last winter, offsetting carbon dioxide from customer travel might be cost-prohibitive.

But Hand says it's not impossible. "If they decided it was a priority, they could certainly do it," he says.

Smugglers' Notch in northern Vermont started a program, also through NativeEnergy, whereby people who buy season passes or daily lift tickets can pay for a Green Pass upgrade. For a season pass, the Green Pass upgrade costs $10 and offers to offset one ton of carbon dioxide, the amount emitted by driving a SUV about 1,500 miles. For a daily lift ticket, the upgrade costs 50 cents. This money is then put toward developing new renewable energy projects that cleanly generate electricity.

NativeEnergy also sells carbon offsets to consumers. For example, Connelly says the hypothetical family of four flying to Vail could mitigate their global warming impact by purchasing carbon offsets for the trip for about $100.

Other ski resorts are making steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions without making 100 percent green claims. For example, Jiminy Peak in Western Massachusetts is erecting a 253-foot wind turbine that will produce 4.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, 2.3 million kilowatt-hours going to Jiminy and the other half going to the grid. The $3.9 million turbine is slated for completion in July.

For Middlebury, achieving carbon neutrality is only the beginning. Reed says that among students and faculty, "There has been talk and research done on a potential wind tower at the top of the mountain."

"Things are really starting to roll, and I think this is the start of a new wave of green ski industries," he adds.

Mackey echoes the sentiment: "The Snow Bowl has taken the lead in becoming a carbon neutral ski facility," he says. "We hope our actions will encourage others to do the same."

Contact Peggy Shinn, a freelance writer in Rutland, Vt., at pegm@highmeadow.com.

'Related'

Located on the spine of the Green Mountain Range, off Route 125 on the west side of Middlebury Gap and about 15 miles from the town of Middlebury.

Lift tickets: $25 all day (midweek), $39 all day (weekends). Students ages 6 through college pay $23 midweek, $28 weekends.

Ski rentals: $30/day adults, $25 juniors (ages 11-13), $15 children (10 and under).

Snowboard rentals (with boots): $30/day adults, $23 juniors (13 and under) .

Lessons: Call 802-388-4356 for availability and price, and for other information.

Lodging: The nearest lodging is in Middlebury . Courtyard by Marriott has a relatively new 89-room hotel in town (800-388-7775) . For cozier accommodations, the Swift House Inn is a lovely Georgian home with 21 rooms (802-388-9925) . Inn on the Green , with 11 rooms, is also recommended (888-244-7512) .

Dining: In Middlebury, Fire & Ice has a well-known salad bar and excellent steaks (802-388-7166). For more eclectic fare, try the Storm Café overlooking Otter Creek (802-388-1063) .

Purchasing carbon offsets: For more information about NativeEnergy and purchasing carbon offsets, log onto nativeenergy.com or call 800-924-6826.

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