Schendler Part III: Aspen SkiCo and global warming

In my third of three blogs (Part I here and Part II here) in response to the Businessweek article about Aspen Skiing Company’s work (“Little Green Lies“), I’ll end with a discussion of where we might go now at Aspen Skiing Company to address climate change.

First, some context. Thinking about the challenges corporations face in trying to reduce CO2 emissions, I emailed my colleague Randy Udall, who until recently ran an energy efficiency nonprofit near Aspen. I asked about Suncor, which used to have an incredible corporate program to address carbon dioxide emissions, but then ended up blowing it all by developing Alberta’s tar sands. Randy noted that there are some things you simply are not going to “green,” and tar sands (and snowmaking) are pretty near the top of the list. [JR: Well, tar sands is at the top of the list — snowmaking is a ways down.]

The raison d’etre of business is to make money. Making money means using energy. Growing your company generally means using more energy.

I pointed out that realistically, we’re not going to “green” business, though we’ll hopefully make some headway. We’re going to have to green the whole system so that business isn’t as damaging. Or, we’re simply going to fail.

Randy agreed, pointing out that this is also why a focus on emissions is the wrong way to think about this problem. You have to transform the energy system and find another way to fuel prosperity. Just trying to reduce emissions tends to blind you to what is really needed.

One blogger was very insistent that we stop making artificial snow early in the season. His point was that we need to get radical. Ignoring the fact that we no longer operate snow guns unless it’s appropriately cold out–ie, below 20 degrees F, let’s say we did that. Let’s say it would cut our carbon footprint 5%. And let’s say every ski resort in Colorado did the same thing. Bottom line–it wouldn’t do anything. We’d still be out of business in 50 years. We need to implement these aggressive actions, but we need to think bigger. Below is the climate strategy for ASC moving forward:

1) We need to think of ourselves as a renewable energy development company in addition to a ski area. In Carbondale, we’re developing 150kW of solar panels, in collaboration with Colorado Rocky Mountain School, the utility Xcel, the nonprofit CORE, and the town. What’s unique about the project is that while we’re financing the project, we’re not going to get the electricity. So it won’t reflect in our carbon footprint. Nonetheless, the project wouldn’t happen without us. After our experience with RECs, we’re not going to worry about getting credit for carbon reductions, as long as we’re making emissions reductions occur. We used this model with our 115kW microhydroelectric system as well.

2) Continue to pursue energy efficiency projects and operational changes (like not running rarely used lifts, and yes, taking a close look at snowmaking) to try to drive down real emissions. One approach we are considering is the creation of an annual energy efficiency fund that is a certain portion of revenue, and which gets spent every year on efficiency projects. This is an idea that first surfaced at Fedex but didn’t get implemented there.

3) Realize that the greatest impact we can have is in leveraging policy change. For example: recently, Colorado’s Governor, Bill Ritter, announced a climate plan for the state. We worked with the trade organization Colorado Ski Country USA to draft an editorial. CSCUSA recruited a dozen ski resort CEOs to sign it, and the essay ran in the Denver Post. Ritter needs business support for his plan if it is to succeed, because it is controversial in some cases. (The clean car initiative, in particular.) Also on the policy-influencing front: last year we filed an Amicus Brief on Mass v. EPA. That suit, which has been called the most important environmental lawsuit ever to go to the Supreme Court, won, and forced the EPA to regulate CO2 as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Last month, a Kansas review board denied a coal plant because of the implications of the future carbon emissions. The only legal basis for their denial, as I understand it, was Mass. V. EPA. That we had any small part in that chain of events is encouraging, and suggests that we’ll be able to find even greater opportunities to drive change down the line.

— Auden S.

7 Responses to Schendler Part III: Aspen SkiCo and global warming

  1. Piecemeal solutions to global warming are utterly futile. It wastes our time and energy to talk about them. Discussing piecemeal solutions simply distracts from focusing on the problems and their solutions. Piecemeal solutions are opportunities to demonstrate virtue, not the radical solutions we need. We need engage in systematic elimination of CO2 emissions. If we look at the sources of CO2 emissions, we find that well over half come from two activities, electrical generation, and surface transportation. Fortunately technology exists that could facilitate the systematic elimination of CO2 emissions from these two vital economic economic sectors. The conversion of electrical generation and surface transportation to existing post-fossil fuel technologies, would eliminate a significant percentage of the CO2 emissions from the United States. Plans must be quickly laid to do so.

    In addition, the operations of the fossil fuel industries, are themselves significant sources of CO2 emissions. Getting rid of the fossil fuel industry would eliminate a further significant source of CO2 emissions. EXXON executive executives know that killing off EXXON would be good for the planet. That is why they have fought so hard to confuse the public about global warming.

    The air transportation sector and water born transportation are both problematic. Both are significant sources of CO2 emissions. No CO2 free power technology exists that could provide propulsive power for either. Decision choices are, to allow the continued use of fossil fuels in these sectors until alternative technologies are developed, or to simply eliminate the sector. Air transport is expendable. Sea born shipping is not.

    Finally the sue of fossil fuels in industry and agriculture has to be reviewed and substitutes found where possible.

    We well face some hard choices in our struggle to save ourselves. Piecemeal solutions will simply not do.

  2. Auden — I learned while writing up a case study on ST MicroElectronics successes in inserting sustainability into its corporate culture (thanks to RMI) that energy efficiency efforts have almost no risk. (See “moving the Corporate Behemoth” at

    Further, I’ve been intrigued by the city of Berkeley’s plan to provide solar financing to anyone who wants it (to be paid off over time on the property tax bill), and recently heard about something called “on-bill financing” for small businesses. It allows them to invest in energy efficiency and pay off the costs over time through energy savings.

    I bring these issues up because it seems like one solution to the problem of availability of capital within businesses is access to extramural sources of capital and/or deployment of creative or unconventional financing mechanisms.

    The low-hanging fruit of efficiency has no risk attached, and a steady source of $$ through energy savings that securely collateralizes any loan or investment.

  3. Auden says:


    I was the guy at RMI that got the first call when ST Micro started exploring efficiency work, and I coordinated some of RMI’s first projects with ST. They’re incredible. You are right, to a point. The performance contracting model, for example (where you get efficiency work done for free, then pay back from savings) hasn’t worked at ASC because returns are too small. (Performance contracting works great in hospitals, which have huge enegy demands.) We can and will get at the low hanging fruit. But my concern is that that’s all business will go after–and if all businesses did that, say, getting the first 30 percentage points of efficiency, it would be remarkable. But we need 80% reductions, not 30%.


  4. David B. Benson says:

    100% biodiesel for ocean vessels would remove aout 2.7% of the caron added annually to the active carbon cycle.

  5. David B. Benson, what is the social cost of biodiesel?

  6. Eric Sutherland says:

    Somewhat confused here in Fort Collins. In part deux Auden spoke of ASC’s latest solar venture.

    “Aspen Skiing Company is currently developing 150kW of solar energy in Carbondale … That project will sell RECs to our utility, Xcel, at roughly $170/mWh over 20 years”

    Here, he says:

    “while we’re financing the project, we’re not going to get the electricity… the project wouldn’t happen without us….we’re not going to worry about getting credit for carbon reductions.”

    Sounds like someone sold the bragging rights to Xcel already. Taking credit would hardly be sporting. (Hats off to Xcel for doing this, even though the project counts triple towards fulfilling its Colorado RPS.)

    It would be interesting to view the thread where a blogger insisted that ASC stop making snow in the early season. Climate Progress only fielded a few comments that inquired about the energy inputs and methodology as well as a comment or two that used this practice to draw attention to the economics of cheap energy and the repurcussions.

    I am also scratching my head how ASC can get enough natural gas to Snowmass to operate boilers but not a co-gen unit. But I have been so captivated by an illustrated guide to the Arlberg Technique that a friend loaned me that I haven’t dug into the complexities of thermodynamics. She was afraid I was coming off like a real rube and needed to bone up if I was going to go after Vail next. They did so many wonderful things with wool back in those days.

    Climate change and resource depletion are cultural phenomena. They are not happening because we mistakenly selected the wrong fuels. Mathematically, the changes that Schendler talks of are only realistic if the culture that underlies gratuitous consumption is radically altered.

    I once wrote a friend and explained that addressing climate change would require social transformation comparable in scale to what accompanied the advent of Lenin and Mao. He thought I was arguing for communism. This was a guy who, as director of a large University’s facilities and operations, had managed to pull off some very impressive energy efficiency projects. He knew the score, but talking to him about the impact that human energy could have on the problem seemed to be stepping into unfamiliar territrory.

    Similarily, I recently sat through about as much of a local Climate Task Force meeting as I could handle. The meeting room was equipped with two parallel circuits of lights, either one of which would be sufficient. The lighting designers had specified an energy saving time-out feature into the lights which had a malfunctioning motion sensor. Every time the lights would go out, both banks would be brought back up. What could be more prosaic than a room full of climate warriors using twice as much energy as necessary?

    If the vision that Auden Schendler is laying out here is to come to pass, it must, in some way, engage human energy in conserving the hydrocarbon variety. In many circumstances that may require people to elect to refrain from participating in energy intensive activities in favor of finding something else meaningful to do. Elect to leave the skis in the shed until enough man made snow has fallen? Perhaps. But this would require that they not be duped into thinking they are skiing on ice crystals precipitated entirely by the graceful advancement of wind turbine blades.

    The most certain method available for driving people to smart energy choices is ensuring that the economics of energy consumption matches the reality. This requires paying more. Filing legal briefs is nice. Real advancement will come when mandatory carbon taxes loom on the horizon.

    There is simply no way to green up businesses enough to make a difference. We have to change the way we live. Both our expectations and the way we achieve them have to evolve. Radically. Anybody that wants to argue that this is simply not possible, that consumption is systemic, has a mountain of evidence to support their position. But a much more certain emphatic statement can be offered: It is simply impossible to succeed without transforming the culture that is driving climate change. Consume less.

    (Parties interested in other interpretations of Mr. Schendler are encouraged to call the no nonsense folks in public relations at Vail Resorts , a Colorado competitor of ASC.)

  7. paulm says:

    Charles Barton says – We well face some hard choices in our struggle to save ourselves. Piecemeal solutions will simply not do.

    However, it is an important part of adjusting our attitudes and evolving our behavior to a more sustainable existence.