Building a Business (and Culture) Around Sustainability Is An Evolving Process

On March 22, Rocky Mountain Institute solar experts Ned Harvey and Jesse Morris sat down with Matthew Hamilton and Dana Dalla Betta of Aspen Ski Company (SkiCo) to discuss solar and energy efficiency in the Roaring Fork Valley. Three themes emerged on the challenges and opportunities to not just pursue solar, but build a sustainable company. >

Since its carbon reduction efforts began in the early 1990s, SkiCo has made strides toward achieving a 10 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2012 by investing heavily in energy efficiency and renewables,. Taking its sustainability practices beyond the mountain to the company’s hotels and other operations has provided a tremendous payback. SkiCo has already witnessed 10 percent energy reductions at the Little Nell and Limelight hotels, largely achieved by upgrading equipment and increasing the efficiency of snowmelt systems.

The next stage is to optimize SkiCo’s 250 buildings, equipment, and countless operations as one system that can be tuned to reduce energy use across the board, and be powered by clean, renewable sources.

“If it’s just one or two people in a company making a commitment to sustainable operations in one or two buildings, it won’t work. Reaching our goals requires a full company commitment,” said Hamilton. “Employee engagement is the biggest struggle. We’re improving in that area every day.”

This whole-systems approach has been a hallmark of RMI since it was co-founded by Amory Lovins almost 30 years ago. Since then, RMI has worked with companies worldwide to hedge against the risks of fossil fuel volatility and gain competitive advantage by pursuing efficiency and renewables.

“Recognizing the interconnections in the system allows businesses to make better investments than they would have if these decisions were made in isolation,” said Harvey. “Getting everyone from the boardroom to the factory floor to look for opportunities often hidden in these complex systems is difficult, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But your employees can be your biggest assets in achieving energy reduction goals and allowing your company’s sustainability efforts to evolve over time.”

Efficiency First

The importance of efficiency as a cornerstone of SkiCo’s broader sustainability strategy is evident in the renovation of the Merry-Go-Round on-mountain restaurant at Aspen Highlands.

The 30-year-old building was in dire need of an upgrade. SkiCo used the opportunity to not only bring the building up to code, but to invest in efficiency measures that would pay back with reduced energy costs for years to come.

“We started the project by taking the building down to its core and shell, and this gave us the ability to capture the low hanging fruit efficiency opportunities,” said Dalla Betta. “While solar and other projects may draw more attention thanks to their “high tech” nature, a building that only operates four to five months of the year, for eight hours each day, makes the payback difficult. Spending the money on efficiency measures like double pane windows, upgraded mechanical equipment, and extra insulation to tighten the building envelope gave us the most bang for our buck.”

The building also features a digital control system that automates building energy management. Cooking equipment, for example can be turned on and off according to its energy use. These measures are projected to lead to a 30 percent reduction in building energy use, but the verdict is still out as the team continues to fine-tune to ensure the building is operating properly.

“You can’t just go put a system in and expect it to perform in the way you intended it to,” said Dalla Betta. “You have to monitor to make sure everything is running well.”

Good local programs and policies go far, but the power is in the market

Every building, no matter how efficient, still needs electricity, so it is also essential to address how we transform the electricity system. Powering buildings in a cleaner and more efficient way is often the biggest challenge financially to companies or homeowners, but also presents the biggest opportunity for emerging business models.

In Reinventing Fire, RMI’s vision and blueprint for a 2050 U.S. economy powered by efficiency and renewables, RMI analysis shows how smart local and regional policies can bypass political gridlock and create a positive environment for emerging clean energy markets.

One such policy in SkiCo’s backyard is the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, or REMP, launched in 2000 by the City of Aspen and Pitkin County. Since its inception, REMP has raised $8 million for local energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. It does this by requiring owners of very large residential properties that wish to consume additional energy for snowmelt technology, outdoor pools, or spas to either install a renewable energy system onsite or pay a renewable energy mitigation fee.

These fees are managed by CORE, a local energy-efficiency non-profit, and have funded solar hot water systems, daylighting projects, and even the construction of a sustainable greenhouse facility. “Policies like REMP and Colorado’s unique legislative treatment of community solar gardens are great examples of how local policies and state-level initiatives can help incubate new business models and promote energy efficiency at the grassroots level,” said RMI’S Morris.

“In this community, we are looking for the best opportunities to generate the electricity that we need cleanly and locally,” said Hamilton. “New energy technologies play a big role in that, like solar PV. But, there are also great ways to do things with current technologies responsibly, and it is a role of a company like ours to push those forward.”

This dynamic and dialogue around what policies are needed to support renewable growth, and how businesses make decisions about the energy investments they make is exactly what RMI is trying to influence.

“We work with business as an impetus for change, and SkiCo is showing that business is indeed the center of the bull’s-eye when it comes to influencing energy markets,” said Harvey. “When companies make decisions on what is not only environmentally responsible, but profitable, we’ll see what the market winners truly are.”