Will this be the world’s first zero-carbon ski resort?
Laax has been innovating since it pioneered the freestyle ski movement in the 1980s. Now, the resort plans to eliminate all carbon emissions by 2030. Tristan Kennedy visits the small Swiss village with big plans to make snow sports entirely sustainable
Picture a perfect day skiing in the Swiss Alps: a modern, heated cable car whisks you more than 1,000 vertical metres up a mountain, where you spend the morning swooshing down crisp, corduroy pistes, sculpted to perfection by the snow grooming team overnight. You stop briefly for a hearty lunch before returning to the slopes to watch freestylers work the world’s largest halfpipe. After an après-ski glass of gluhwein, you retire to your cosy hotel and unwind your tired limbs in the hot tub, before sitting down to a tasty three-course dinner.
Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? And it is – until you consider the energy required to run a ski resort. Energy usage is high in the mountains: hotels and chalets must be heated and hot tubs must be kept warm in sub-zero temperatures. Just one cable car can use the same amount of energy per year as it would take to heat 100 UK homes. And, at the same time, climate change is threatening snow coverage, leading to fewer snow days and a bigger-than-ever reliance on piste bashers and snow cannons (which each use ten times as much energy as a domestic oven).
Yet, the ski industry is crucial to the Alpine economy. In Switzerland’s mountain regions, one in every five francs is generated through tourism. Ever the innovator, the resort of Laax has decided to tackle the problem head-on by leading the way in emissions-free skiing. It’s working towards a zero-carbon future, where snow sports and environmental protections will go hand in hand.
Small town, big plans
Laax isn’t the first Swiss ski town to cut carbon. Zermatt generates a growing proportion of its energy from solar panels and hydroelectricity. Saas Fee is car-free and has invested in a geothermal energy system. But it’s Laax, a small town that’s a base for one of the largest connected ski areas in the country, that has perhaps the most comprehensive plan for cutting out carbon.
Going carbon neutral isn’t a new idea, but the resorts that have achieved it so far – including Wild Mountain and Taos Ski Valley in the US – have balanced out emissions by cutting some and offsetting others. Laax’s plan, developed by its head of sustainability Reto Fry and named ‘Greenstyle’ after the freestyle skiing for which the resort is famous, is more radical. It aims to eliminate all operational emissions by 2030, making Laax the world’s first ski resort to be zero carbon. It’s an ambitious goal. “Every screw, every bottle, every bit of food, it’s so much stuff to think about,” Fry says with a wry grin.
Eco skiing in action
Spend a night in The Riders Hotel and you’ll see Greenstyle in action. The rooms combine Scandi-style furnishings and artfully curated bookshelves with energy-saving touches such as LED lights mounted in brushed copper piping. Breakfast is a vegetarian buffet, made from locally sourced produce to minimise food miles. Suppliers such as the coffee company Miro are chosen for their sustainable packaging, and leftover food is weighed and measured, meaning both plastic waste and food waste are as close to zero as possible. The building is well insulated, with 100 per cent of its power and heating provided by renewable energy and solar panels on the roof. In a neat touch, these panels are arranged in vertical lines, rather than laid flat. Not only do they not get covered in snow in winter, but they allow space for a rooftop garden to grow in summer, attracting bees and encouraging biodiversity.
The Greenstyle programme is full of clever win-win ideas like these. The new Flem Xpress gondola, set to open next year, will only run when summoned by skiers – reducing electricity consumption as well as wear and tear. Greenstyle has given rise to new activities, too. A recently opened treetop walkway, which features a 73m-long slide, isn’t just tons of fun, but also highlights the biodiversity the programme seeks to preserve. Of course, when it comes to the core work of eliminating emissions, much of the heavy lifting is done behind the scenes.
Laax aims to eliminate all operational emissions by 2030, making it the world’s first ski resort to be zero carbon
Laax’s lift network might look conventional, but since 2008 all 28 of its lifts – as well as the snow cannons and the pumps that provide them with water – have been fuelled by 100 per cent renewable electricity. In terms of emissions, it’s an impressive achievement: the lifts alone use around eight million kilowatt hours of electricity each year. But it didn’t require any brilliant new tech, explains Fry. Most of the energy comes from hydroelectric dams, which have been part of Switzerland’s power grid for decades. The same is true when it comes to buildings – the other big contributor to the resort’s footprint.
“It’s boring, but the best ‘technology’ for reducing buildings’ emissions is insulation,” says Professor Mark Gillott, an expert in sustainable building design at Nottingham University’s School of Architecture. “It’s the simplest thing, but it makes the biggest difference.” Gillott isn’t involved in Laax’s plans but, as someone who’s been working on green buildings since 1993 (“when we were viewed as the hippy sandals brigade”) and a keen skier himself, he understands the issues Fry and his team face better than most.
“In any ski resort, the big challenge is heating,” he explains. “Historically, we’ve always relied on fossil fuels to do that, and the challenge is around how you transition over to an electrification of that heating, and retrofitting those buildings, while making sure they keep their character.”
Fry sees the resort’s old buildings as an opportunity. Since 2014, he’s been installing solar panels on all the lift station roofs. Eventually, Fry calculates that Laax will be able to switch from being an energy consumer, to an energy supplier – pumping excess solar energy into Switzerland’s wider grid.
Gliding into the future
If positivity infuses much of Fry’s talk around Laax’s potential, that’s entirely deliberate. Community outreach and persuading residents and visitors of the value of cutting carbon are key parts of the Greenstyle strategy, he explains. Thankfully, it’s not been a hard sell so far.
The long-term economic case for reducing emissions makes itself. Winter tourism accounts for more than ten per cent of GDP in Switzerland’s mountain regions, where the tourist industry employs one in four people. “In Laax, we make more than 80 per cent of our revenue during the ski season,” Fry says. The changes are bringing benefits in the short term, too. “Our surveys show that more than 90 per cent of our guests really appreciate the Greenstyle effort,” he says. “And about 50 per cent of them say it would be a reason to choose Laax instead of another destination.”
Around the globe, skiers and snowboarders are becoming better informed about environmental issues, according to Lauren MacCallum, general manager of Protect Our Winters UK, a non-profit that campaigns for change in snow sports. “This conversation has gone from one that people would literally walk away from me in the pub to avoid, to one that people come up to me in the pub wanting to talk about,” she says.
Back in the Swiss Alps, Fry would love Greenstyle to become a set of guidelines that other destinations could adopt or adapt, but his real focus is on making Laax the best it can be for its guests: “We want to create a destination where you can go on holiday with a clean conscience.”
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