The ski industry is increasingly focusing its sustainability efforts on decarbonizing the electric grid, by engaging with their power suppliers, regulators, and state policymakers. In the latest move, a group of Colorado ski resorts are supporting Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s efforts to end its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and pursue more renewable energy.

In a letter to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in February, Colorado Ski Country USA President Melanie Mills wrote that the group “supports the efforts of Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) to withdraw from membership in Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. (Tri-State) in order to develop more local renewable resources and stabilize its retail rates.”

The letter also notes that of Colorado Ski Country USA’s 23 member ski resorts, 16 buy electricity from rural electric cooperatives. Most of those co-ops buy wholesale power Tri-State, and so face limits on their abilities to pursue local renewable energy projects. That poses challenges for some ski resorts’ sustainability efforts.

Ski resorts also notice higher electricity costs, as the letter explains: “As businesses and large consumers of energy, keeping energy sources affordable is critical for Colorado’s ski areas to operate cost-effectively in the future.”

Ski industry trade associations focus their climate change advocacy efforts at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show last month in Denver, three trade associations representing thousands of skiing and outdoor recreation companies announced the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership, a new joint effort to advocate for climate policy solutions. The groups behind the new effort include the Outdoor Industry Association, Snowsports Industries America, and the National Ski Areas Association, which represents over 300 ski resorts in the US.

The Outdoor Business Climate Partnership says its goals include advocating for climate policies, and “encouraging our members to engage in the process of helping to shape and support state policies and utility initiatives to decarbonize the grid.”

As part of the partnership’s announcement, eight statewide ski industry associations provided some details about their priorities, and Colorado Ski Country USA President Melanie Mills reinforced that focus on state policies and electric utilities:

​“The ski industry in Colorado employs nearly 50,000 people and our 23-member ski areas take the threat of climate change seriously. In Colorado, our policy team advocates for policies at the Capitol and the Public Utilities Commission to expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency and mitigate the impacts of climate change. We will continue to engage with state and local elected officials and leaders to support forward thinking climate solutions.”

The Snowsports Industries Association also encourages its members to contact their local utility companies, and says, “It’s critical now that businesses leverage their influence and economic weight to be strong advocates for clean energy – at the utility, state and federal level.” And the National Ski Areas Association provides its members with a variety of resources, including “How to engage with utilities on decarbonizing the grid.”

The ski industry trade associations’ increased focus on electric utilities reflects some of the lessons that their member ski resorts have learned in recent years. As Navigant Research detailed, ski resorts across the country have been leveraging their role as major energy users to support the shift to clean energy.

In Colorado, Aspen Skiing Company has made progress toward its sustainability goals by focusing on decarbonizing the electric grid that supplies its operations.  Aspen Skiing Company says working with utilities on clean energy is “our most effective strategy”

While Aspen has pursued a variety of sustainability efforts, the company’s 2017 sustainability report says, “Our most effective strategy to reduce emissions is working with our utilities to choose lower carbon fuel sources.”

And the company’s most recent sustainability report highlighted a key outcome of that strategy. In 2018, Aspen Skiing Company also weighed in at the Colorado PUC to support Xcel Energy’s Colorado Energy Plan, which will replace two coal units with a mix of new renewable energy and battery projects and existing natural gas plants. Auden Schendler, the company’s senior vice president of sustainability and community engagement, testified in support of the plan, which the PUC approved in August 2018.

Alterra and Vail Resorts have also begun to engage with utilities and regulators The ski industry’s biggest players have started to engage with electric utilities and regulators as well, bringing the influence of multi-billion dollar companies to these negotiations.

Alterra, which owns 13 ski resorts in North America including Winter Park and Steamboat Springs in Colorado, joined Aspen Skiing Company in support of the Colorado Energy Plan. Alterra President David Perry said:

“While Alterra Mountain Co. is a new company, our values are deeply rooted in the enduring commitment to preserve the mountain environments that we operate in. We believe in starting this venture on the right foot by supporting this businesslike effort in Colorado to increase clean energy, while ensuring stable energy prices. We will continue to use our collective voice to influence policy on key issues such as solutions to global climate change.”

Vail Resorts also supported Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan, along with other utility industry investments in renewable energy, such as Rocky Mountain Power’s request for proposal for new wind, solar, and geothermal projects in Utah.

As part of its 100% renewable electricity goal, Vail Resorts also announced a virtual power purchase agreement for a new wind power project in Nebraska, and used Xcel Energy’s Renewable Connect program to contract for a 50 megawatt solar project east of Denver. The company’s sustainability manager has also said that Vail plans to pursue renewable energy projects at or near its resorts.

Colorado ski resorts that buy power from Tri-State member co-ops don’t have the same options unlike Xcel Energy’s Renewable Connect program and Holy Cross Energy’s Renewable Energy Purchasing Program, most electric cooperatives in Colorado don’t have formal programs aimed at providing renewable energy for major customers. That can create challenges for companies seeking to power their operations with renewable energy, as Mountain Town News reported about Wolf Creek Ski Area’s efforts to bring a solar power project online in the nearby San Luis Valley:

In the telling of [Wolf Creek owner Davey] Pitcher, he forced the hand of his local electrical supplier. Frustrated by the lack of apparent interest from the co-op, he says, he began talking with Solar City, a major developer, about building a solar farm to directly supply the ski area. It wasn’t a bluff, he says, nor was it his preferred option. For one thing, he would have had to pay the co-op for use of transmission lines, what is called a wheeling fee.

Tri-State’s largest member co-op, United Power,is seeking to change Tri-State’s bylaws to provide member co-ops with more flexibility to partner with major customers on renewable energy projects. When United Power presented the idea to Mountain Parks Electric last month, one topic of discussion was the possibility that Winter Park Ski Resort or an outdoor industry company may want to pursue a local renewable energy project.

Several other Colorado ski resorts are members of other co-ops that buy power from Tri-State, and some are exploring renewable energy projects. Telluride Ski Resort, which buys power from San Miguel Power Association, says a “Renewable energy feasibility study underway with Mountain Village to study options for utilization of solar, hydro and wind power resources.”

​Still, a recent New York Times op-ed explains, it’s not yet clear how engaged the broader ski industry will be in efforts to decarbonize the grid and other climate policy efforts. As Aspen Skiing Company’s Auden Schendler put it, “The question now is what kind of resources and staffing these trade groups will put behind these efforts.”