What comes next for Vail Resorts’ carbon neutrality

The three Comanche power plants at Pueblo, Colo. supply power for Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen. Two units, signified by red-striped stacks, are likely to be replaced by low-priced renewables in 2025. Photo/Allen Best

Vail Resorts takes steps to make good on its goal of carbon neutrality

by Allen Best

BROOMFIELD, Colo. – Vail Resorts has taken a step to make good on its vow to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, one of a trio of ambitious environmental goals announced last year by chief executive Rob Katz.

Vail yesterday announced it has engaged Renewable Choice Energy, a company based in Boulder, Colo., to help identify and implement renewable energy projects that it can purchase or fund as part of its comprehensive sustainability commitment. Renewable Choice Energy is a subsidiary of Schneider Electric.

How Vail intends to do this was not clear. A spokeswoman for Vail said the company is in the very early stages of engagement. “We want to bring more renewable energy online,” said Liz Biebl, but she did not offer details.

Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co., suspects that Vail will end up entering into commitments called power purchase agreements. Such agreements trigger development of a wind, solar or other renewable generation project.

Google and Microsoft have been entering into such purchase agreements for wind power to provide electricity or their data centers.

The project may not necessarily be local, he speculates, but might be in a state where Vail has no operations, say Pennsylvania or Nebraska. The electricity is not provided directly to the company’s operations, but does provide the accounting to justify the company saying it has achieved net-zero emissions. Some of its local electricity may come from carbon sources, but it is offset by the new renewable generation produced elsewhere.

In pushing for net-zero emissions energy, Vail is swimming with a strengthening current. Many communities where it does business have adopted comparable goals, and renewable electricity has become much, much cheaper—in many cases the lowest cost electricity.

Many cities and some counties where Vail does business have adopted 100 percent renewable goals, among them South Lake Tahoe,  Breckenridge and Park City. In pushing for net-zero emissions energy, Vail is swimming with a strengthening current. Many communities where it does business have adopted comparable goals, and renewable electricity has become much, much cheaper—in many cases the lowest cost electricity.

The utilities that serve these resorts have also generally agreed to work with the localities to push the clean-energy agenda. But they remain heavily invested in carbon generation, both coal and natural gas.

The shift toward non-carbon sources, once at the pace of a turtle, is now rushing like a hare. Xcel Energy subsidiary Public Service Co. of Colorado in August announced plans to close to coal-fired power plants at Pueblo, replacing the 660 megawatts of lost generation with wind, solar and probably natural gas, depending upon bids.

David Eves, the president of Public Service Co., said at the time he expected that consumers will pay no more, perhaps even pay less.

A wind farm near Medicine Bow, Wyo. Photo/Allen best

Xcel in late November got bids for the replacement power to the two coal plants in Pueblo, Colo. Even those who were aware of how rapidly prices were dropping for renewables were surprised, even shocked.

“Wow!!” said Leslie Glustrom, an energy activist in Boulder, Colo., who has been prodding Xcel for 15 years to accelerate its shift. “Check out those prices!”

Median wind price was below 2 cents a kilowatt-hour. Median solar was below 3 cents. Median solar with battery storage came in at 3.6 cents, lowest in the nation ever. Coal is much higher.

With the shift, Public Service believes it can expand its non-carbon generating portfolio from 30 percent today to 55 percent by 2025.

A decade has made a huge difference. In 2007, Vail Resorts, then a much smaller company, announced it was buying renewable energy credits, or RECs, from wind farms sufficient to offset its carbon emissions 100 percent. The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News made it front-page news, and it was the lead item in the New York Times national section. But not everybody was impressed. There has always been a squishiness associated with REC. With power purchase agreements, the proof of additionality is clear.

This is different, said Schendler, and if Vail indeed pursues purchase power agreements, it will be a real accomplishment as part of its Epic Promise, as the company brands it.

Vail Resorts’ Katz also committed to zero waste to landfill and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat, both by 2030.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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