In time for the new ski season, several Northern New England ski areas are becoming part of a national trend of resorts going "green" by buying wind-generated electricity to power their energy-hungry operations.
At least five ski areas in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are hoping to send a positive message to their environmentally minded customers by buying the equivalent of power they use from wind-generated sources.
Don't expect to see windmills sprouting up at the resorts. They will still get power they need off the grid, but its equivalent will have been produced by "green" sources, mostly wind, helping to subsidize the renewable-energy industry.
"This is really our opportunity to do our part to reverse global warming," said Melissa Rock of Shawnee Peak in Bridgton, Maine, which announced its decision to go with 100 percent wind power earlier this month.
Sugarloaf USA in Carrabassett Valley and Sunday River in Newry, Maine, have announced they are doing the same, which makes them jointly the largest purchaser and consumer of wind power in Maine, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Resorts in New Hampshire and Vermont are also part of the trend.
"Protecting the environment is one of our core values. We live off the environment," said Bruce McCloy of Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire. "Some people have to get the pendulum moving and others hop on as it gets moving."
Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vt., and Crested Butte in Colorado, which are under the same ownership as Sunapee, are also going 100 percent wind power. The three resorts say the impact of the combined power deal is to offset carbon dioxide emissions associated with the combustion of 1.9 million gallons of gasoline.
The eastern resorts are quickly catching up with their western counterparts in opting for wind power.
Last March, Aspen Skiing Co. became Colorado's first resort to purchase enough wind power to offset all of its electricity use. Five months later, Vail Resorts announced it would buy enough wind-generated electricity to replace all the power used by its five ski areas.
The National Ski Areas Association said the idea is snowballing across the country. More than 20 ski areas have gone to 100 percent wind offsets through NSAA's Green Power Program, and around 30 others are going with partial offsets, said the association's Troy Hawks.
Ski areas have taken other steps to show their green stripes by selling "green tags" made available through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. The purchases support the production of renewable energy in the United States and Canada.
Large and small resorts everywhere are also taking steps in their everyday operations to save energy by improving efficiency in their snowmaking. Making sure there's plenty of snow will also help ski areas — especially those in Northern New England — to rebound from a dismal 2005-06 season marked by decreases in skier days in all three states.
Maine was hit hardest, with a 14 percent drop, while New Hampshire slipped by 10 percent and Vermont by 6 percent, according to industry promotion agencies in the three states.
Last season started early on a too-good-to-be-true note, with 3-or 4-foot dumpings on some Maine and New Hampshire ski mountains even before Halloween arrived. But the snowy treat turned out to be a trick, elated resort managers learned as they watched the weather turn wet and balmy.
By the end of the season, Maine recorded its sixth warmest winter in Portland, where the mercury hit 57 degrees on Jan. 27. Total snowfall in Concord, N.H., was 49.7 inches, nearly 15 inches below normal. Vermont was so warm that some maple syrup producers were tapping their trees in January.
While their numbers were down, some ski areas were saved from total disaster by their ability to make snow.
"It would have been a very difficult year for some of the resorts to get a majority of their terrain open without snowmaking," said Karl Stone, Ski New Hampshire's marketing director.
Sugarloaf USA, which already had about 100 low-energy snow guns, is adding a couple of dozen to its arsenal. The snow guns will be especially useful in an upgraded terrain park that will accommodate jumps twice as big as the old park would allow, said Sugarloaf spokesman Bill Swain.
Mount Abram in Greenwood has put up more tower guns, which maximize efficiency by setting the nozzles 15 or so feet above the trails.
Added snowmaking is also the story in Vermont, where more high-efficiency guns are trained on the trails at Okemo, Mount Snow and the Middlebury College Snow Bowl. Middlebury's also decided to go with wind power.
New Hampshire resorts are investing in expanded snowmaking and grooming this season, said Ski New Hampshire's Stone. The added expansion is in proportion with past seasons, he said. Worries about global warming aside, the fact is that ever since skiing in Maine began in the 1930s, there have been cold spells and warm spells, said Greg Sweetser of the Ski Maine Association.
"The nature of the winters now," said Ryan Guerrette, operations manager at Big Rock Ski Area in Mars Hill, "is that you have to look at added snowmaking just to stay open."
Big Rock is also looking at wind power to help indirectly in attracting more customers, hoping the 28-turbine Mars Hill Wind Farm next door will draw skiers who just want to get a look at the $55 million power project.
"The windmills are right here on top of us. I definitely think it's going to be a booster," said Guerrette, noting that Big Rock has no plans presently to buy wind power. "We're definitely looking to capitalize on that."
Snow guns aren't the only improvements being made at the region's ski areas this season.
In Warren, Vt., Sugarbush has the largest capital expansion project to open to the public at any of the state's ski resorts this season. The resort has three new buildings featuring slopeside luxury suites, dining and an expanded changing area.
Stowe Mountain Resort in December opens a new lift that will transfer skiers between the slopes at the bases of Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak. The long-anticipated lift replaces a shuttle that has connected the two Vermont mountains.
In Maine, Sugarloaf is replacing its terrain park and Big Rock is adding a snow tubing park with lighting and snowmaking.
The Mars Hill ski area, where some of the massive windmill blades were stored before they were fixed to the turbines, is even looking into the possibility of running its chair lifts in the summer months so people can see the windmills up close, said Guerrette.