Vail’s energy efficiency sometimes hard to see |

Vail’s energy efficiency sometimes hard to see

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado ” It’s a cloudy day, and Vail has gotten its first snowfall in weeks ” it’s good for the skiing, but bad for the array of newly installed solar panels at the top of Eagle’s Nest.

Luke Cartin, Vail Mountain’s environmental manager, inspects the machines monitoring the panels and squints as he presses a few buttons. The panels, obscured from view by a layer of snow, aren’t producing much energy at the moment, he said.

However, when it’s sunny and the panels are working at full capacity, the panels can power most of the buildings at Eagle’s Nest. It is enough energy to power three households, Cartin said.

The 42 panels are the mountain’s first attempt at solar power, and is only one of many environmental efforts that make Vail an internationally recognized “green mountain,” Cartin said.

Since their installation this August, the panels, located on top of the Bailey’s coffee shop building, have kept more than 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the air.

If the panels are successful this winter, more will likely be installed elsewhere on the mountain.

“We know the theoreticals,” Cartin said of using solar energy. “But we’re up at 10,000 feet in the Rockies. But they do like cold weather, and we do get a lot of sunshine.”

Despite criticism from some environmental groups, Vail Resorts said that the company is a leader in environmentally friendly initiatives. Vail Mountain especially has received environmental awards in both the ski industry and among other major companies.

Critics question the harmful impacts of a massive ski resort, worrying about global warming and disappearing wildlife.

“You’ll hear all kinds of (opinions) about the ski industry, but if you can’t ski in Colorado in 2050, we’ll have a lot bigger issues than not being able to ski,” Cartin said.

The company has a goal of reducing its energy usage by 10 percent in the next two years, an effort that includes everything from looking at sustainable energy sources to switching over to energy-efficient sources.

The mountain also has a large recycling program ” about 70 percent of all the waste from the mountain is recycled. The mountain has its own baling and sorting equipment, which organizes and compresses everything from scrap metal to plastics, allowing the mountain to ship out about 100 tons of recyclable materials per month.

Even chairlifts, such as the recently replaced Chair 9, are completely deconstructed and entirely recycled, Cartin said.

The mountain’s biggest energy sappers are the 31 chairlifts and the snow-making equipment, which run about 60 days a year and use 40 percent of the mountain’s electricity.

But what about the new catwalk that might disrupt wildlife, or the impact of a ski mountain to streams, animals and trees?

Cartin said the mountain works closely with the U.S. Forest Service, and that none of the mountain’s terrain work or expansion projects can happen without the approval of environmental authorities.

Most recently, the mountain worked with the Forest Service to cut down almost 5,800 beetle kill trees this fall, mostly between the Simba run and Chair 26.

Looking down the mountain from the top of Chair 26, the landscape is surprisingly bare.

“That’s what it looks like with all the dead trees taken out,” Cartin said. “We still haven’t decided what the final plans are for (this area). We’re using some of the beetle kill wood to burn in our open fireplaces (at Eagle’s Nest.)”

In the spring, mountain crews spend days “chasing water,” or making sure all the melting snow is diverted to the right streams.

Dangers of uncontrolled runoff water include harmful sediment runoff or mudslides.

“We’re held to a very high standard, and everything we do is held under a microscope,” Cartin said of the mountain’s efforts. “I think that’s a good thing.”

However, many of the mountain’s “green efforts” are unseen, or at least not apparent to the passing skier.

The resort has started using energy-efficient snow guns, for example. Some of the mountain’s snowmaking equipment dates back to 1982, and Cartin said he and his staff are working to replace the electricity-guzzling, ear-deafening older models.

The mountain is experimenting with another energy-saving concept ” keeping snow through the summer. Last year some terrain park features were covered with a protective tarp and stored away. This year the tarp will come off and hopefully the feature will debut at Golden Peak, saving the mountain from having to rebuild it and make more snow.

The mountain is also working on a plan that would put solar panels on top of the gondola cars, recharging the cars as the gondola moves. The sun is also put to work with the mountain’s energy-saving trash cans.

Several ordinary-looking trash cans at the lift base areas are actually “solar-powered trash compactors.” They can take six cans worth of trash and compress it into half a can, saving trips to the landfill.

The mountain bought the first one ever made, Cartin said proudly.

“People come out here because of the environment that surrounds us,” he said “So we have to take really good care of it.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or “

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