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Colorado Resort to Invest Heavily in Wind Power

by: Kirk Johnson    2 August 2006

DENVER, Aug. 1 — Vail Resorts, the big Colorado ski and recreation company, said Tuesday that it would make a huge investment in wind power, buying enough credits to offset all the power needed for its resorts, retail stores and office buildings.

The announcement makes Vail the second-largest corporate buyer of wind energy in the nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, after Whole Foods Market Inc., the big supermarket chain that went to all wind power earlier this year.

Buying wind, though, will not mean building mountain windmills. Rather, Vail officials said they would buy the equivalent amount of their energy needs in wind power credits from a Boulder company called Renewable Choice Energy. Renewable Choice will then buy wind power from producers — mainly in Minnesota, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota — and inject the amount of power Vail uses into the national electric grid.

Tourism industry experts said Vail's clout — its resorts accounted for more than 10 percent of all skier visits in the nation last year — took alternative energy in the West's recreation economy a big step closer to the mainstream. The Aspen Skiing Company, a resort operator in Colorado, said in March that it would buy only wind power.

Recent climate studies have suggested that winter tourism in the West could be especially hard hit in years to come by global warming, which could reduce mountain snowpack. But the chief executive officer at Vail, Robert A. Katz, said at a news conference that an equally important motive in embracing renewable energy was to establish and maintain relationships with visitors, who Mr. Katz said increasingly expected high environmental standards as they decided where to spend money.

"It's a way to get closer to our guests," he said.

Company officials would not estimate the program's cost, but said that total energy use was about 152,000 megawatt hours a year — about as much as is used by 14,000 average homes. The company said it would also create a promotional incentive plan to encourage employees and visitors to convert to wind power at home, with a free day ski pass to anyone who signed up.

Vail's wind packages, for itself and its guests, also illuminate how the embrace of alternative energy these days is as much about complex financial deals as environmental concerns.

The idea of wind power credits, said the chief executive and founder of Renewable Choice Energy, Quayle Hodek, is to displace fossil fuel generation nationally, if not quite locally. The day-to-day supply for Vail's chairlifts, lights and machinery will still be generated as it is now by local suppliers. In Colorado, that means mostly coal-fired generation.

Similarly, visitors to a Vail resort who sign up for wind power would not change utility providers either. Rather they would pay $15 a month for a family, or $5 for an individual, to Mr. Hodek's company to buy credits for the amount of wind used by their household, which would then be fed into the national grid. The buyer would pay the same old electric bill as before, just as Vail will do here in Colorado.

Vail's environmental image has been deeply mixed over the years. It became the target of eco-terrorist arsonists in 1998 over an expansion plan that impinged on the habitat of the lynx, a high-mountain cat in Colorado. Further expansion goals are also increasingly at odds with groups that are trying to preserve public lands.

But Tuesday's announcement was greeted with applause by environmentalists who said that Vail's actions would go a long way toward inspiring others — if only in competition — and that it would give further impetus to renewable energy investment of all sorts.

Colorado voters approved an amendment to the State Constitution in 2004 that requires big utility companies to provide 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources, especially wind, by 2015. The amendment requires much new production to be within the state's borders.

Jake Meffley, an energy advocate at Environment Colorado, a conservation group based in Denver, said the Vail plan "says to the economy that people are interested in renewal." It did not matter, Mr. Meffley said, that the increased wind production from the deal, or the decreased burning of coal, might not occur in Colorado.

"For the greater good it doesn't matter where it comes from," he said.