In April, Boyne Resorts, the parent company of Big Sky Resort, announced an ambitious two-part goal: by 2030, all 10 of its ski resorts, as well as its other properties — a golf course, retail and corporate facilities and a “SkyPark” featuring a chairlift in Tennessee — will produce net zero carbon emissions. To achieve that, the company will both reduce its carbon footprint and employ offsets and carbon-capture technologies to negate remaining emissions. Secondly, Boyne expects all of its properties to generate 100% of their electricity from clean sources — i.e., wind, hydro and solar — by 2030 as well. (The distinction between the net zero and clean electricity goals comes into play because resorts use fuel sources like natural gas that they don’t expect to totally phase out by 2030.)
The aims appear particularly daunting for Big Sky, the largest of the Boyne properties, and the one that currently produces the highest carbon emissions of all the company’s resorts, according to its own publicly available data.
The plan arrives at a crucial moment for the ski industry. Experts contend that the ski season will shrink dramatically as a result of the ongoing climate crisis, even as ski resorts including Big Sky plan to construct more buildings and expand skiable terrain in the years to come.
Amy Fonte has served as Big Sky’s in-house sustainability specialist since 2021 and played a central role in crafting the company’s emissions reduction strategy, known as the ForeverProject 2030 Master Plan. Now, as she sets out to oversee its implementation, she has her work cut out for her.
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In her role, Fonte spearheads an array of initiatives designed to slash emissions. Under her purview, Big Sky has begun to use renewable diesel in Big Sky’s equipment, scale up composting, keep real-time tabs on emissions, take advantage of renewable energy credits, and advocate for climate-friendly legislation.
Read on as Fonte — an avid skier, despite originally hailing from Florida — outlines her strategy for reducing emissions, the obstacles Big Sky faces on its path to net zero emissions, her reaction to the Held v. Montana ruling and more.
MTFP: Can you explain the distinction between net zero emissions and 100% clean electricity?
Fonte: Net zero carbon emissions means that however much carbon we’re putting out in the atmosphere, we’re [also] taking it away.
The first part of our net zero goal is to reduce emissions as much as possible before we purchase offsets and invest in projects like planting trees or revegetation projects of grasslands and regenerative practices that help pull and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
And so clean electricity is part of that goal. As we move away from fossil fuels, we’re going to become more electrified. But that requires the electric grid to also be cleaner; we’re not just going to flip over to electricity and support everything being powered by coal. We want more renewables on the grid, more clean energy, so when we plug in our equipment it is truly cleaner.
MTFP: According to the ForeverProject plan, Big Sky has the largest carbon footprint of all of the Boyne resorts. Why is that the case?
Fonte: We have both the largest consumption of fuel and power now, and we’re also projected to have the largest [consumption] in the future. We’re the largest of the Boyne resorts in size and in skier visitation. We have a lot of terrain, we have a lot of grooming, a lot of lifts.
Our grid in Montana has a good portion of renewables, but it still has a heavy portion of coal and methane and fossil fuels providing power. A lot of the Northeastern resorts are seeing business-as-usual [projections] to have a much smaller footprint in the future because their electric grids are getting cleaner much faster.
All of our resorts are projected to grow, but at Big Sky we have a lot of new buildings going up and our new tram opening up this year.
MTFP: The ForeverProject plan accounts for more snowmaking in the years to come. Is that because of the impact of climate change, or other factors?
Fonte: Snowmaking has multiple facets to it. There is an uptick because we are increasing the acreage of snowmaking. We had a pretty large expansion last year. It is in part because, in mitigating the effects of climate change, we want to ensure that we can open regularly and stay open. And part of that is just making sure there’s connectivity on the mountain.
MTFP: You mentioned that you’ll use carbon credits to achieve net zero emissions. There’s been a lot of critical coverage of them and whether the market actually works recently. How do you ensure you’re sourcing effective credits?
Fonte: The 12 “Big Moves” that we’ve outlined in our ForeverProject definitely have a sequential order. Balancing moves — which consists of purchasing renewable energy credits or offsets — is last. It’s something that we honestly haven’t researched a whole lot yet.
They are always a component of [getting to] net zero, because eliminating your energy consumption to zero is very, very difficult. You get rid of all the big hog equipment and you get rid of the buildings that are inefficient and you’re operating the most efficiently that you can, and yet you still use energy.
I imagine we’ll start looking at that closer to 2028, as we approach that 2030 goal. I always think that local or regional projects are better than foreign projects. The Western Sustainability Exchange is an organization that helps ranchers with regenerative agriculture [Note: WSE provides a carbon credit marketplace among its services].
The other thing is renewable energy credits [also known as “renewable energy certificates”], which we have purchased to offset our electricity consumption. For every one megawatt of energy that we use from non-clean sources, we’re purchasing one megawatt hour of energy from clean sources. And so that’s something we have been doing since we started with our lifts in 2020. It’s been operations-wide since 2021.
MTFP: How do you track emissions at Big Sky?
Fonte: We are currently working on improving our data analysis tools. We have a dashboard where I input our electricity usage data, our propane usage data, our gasoline and diesel usage data. It’s how we come up with our greenhouse gas inventory every year. The sooner that data gets entered into this dashboard, it’s easier to see when you have large spikes or large decreases, because you’ve implemented a project.
We’re scheduled to get smart meter infrastructure [from NorthWestern Energy]. That will definitely help with the development of that data visualization.
MTFP: Can you explain how renewable diesel works?
Fonte: It’s a newer product. [Unlike with biodiesel], it goes through a hydrotreatment process. There’s less water content in the fuel when you burn it. And so, chemically, it actually is the same as petroleum diesel and it burns much cleaner.
There’s about a 60% reduction in the emissions when you combust it, that’s the estimate we were given. We’ll hopefully test that this season. It’s also just cleaner for our maintenance team that is cleaning this equipment in the shops or running improvements on them.
MTFP: Big Sky reported that it currently diverts 30% of food waste from landfill to compost. How can you increase that percentage?
Fonte: Currently we only compost pre-consumer waste; all of our food and beverage outlets are composting. And now our team members have access to composting at team-member housing.
We use YES Compost, out of Belgrade. They actually do vermicomposting: they feed the compost to worms and get a really rich soil product that then they give to farmers in the region.
We could definitely potentially in the future expand to post-consumer. [But] with so many different people from all over the world coming to Big Sky, it takes a lot of signage and education of what can and can’t be composted.
MTFP: I saw that during the 2023 Legislature you publicly opposed (the ultimately unsuccessful) House Bill 643, which opponents argued would have de-incentivized residential solar systems. Are there other bills or policies that you’ve addressed as well?
Fonte: We definitely advocate for sustainability in our state policy, as well as local and community policies. We recently submitted public comment on NorthWestern Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan.
We definitely want to see more renewables in the electric grid. We supported the Inflation Reduction Act. We wrote to our senators about that. We’ve supported the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, [too].
MTFP: Before we wrap up, what do you think about the Held v. Montana ruling?
Fonte: I think it’s amazing. Actually, one of the plaintiffs worked for Big Sky Resort as a ski instructor.
The fact that it happened at all was a huge step toward climate change progress across the world. The fact that then the judge ruled in favor of the youth plaintiffs is another victory altogether. We definitely need to hold our state agencies accountable and our governor’s office accountable to really consider climate change and consider sustainability.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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