A few years back, David Dunn of Green Mountain Power, a small utilities company in Vermont, courted Killington Mountain Resorts with a new proposition. Admittedly, the idea was a strange one—to power the ski resort with cow poop.
Killington took some convincing. Dunn took the ski resort's green team up to a nearby farm. He showed them the cows. He pointed out the anaerobic digester and explained how, inside the cement tank, methane rising up from the cow manure was being converted into energy that Green Mountain Power (GMP) would buy from the farmer and introduce into the local energy grid.
Shortly after that visit, in 2012, Killington signed up for GMP's Cow Power Program, a tariff system through which customers pay a four-cent premium on however many kilowatt-hours of their electricity bill they'd like to have, symbolically, as cow power.
"With any large company you have a certain resistance to change the way things are done, especially if they're already working. But this is about as Vermont as a program could possibly be," says Michael Joseph, Killington's communications manager. "Skiing mixed with farming mixed with sustainability and green technology. The resort wouldn't support some endeavor for energy that would be counter to our principles of nature, solitude, and respect for the earth."
In its first cow power year, Killington financed the creation of 300,000 kilowatt-hours of cow power, as much energy as the resort's K-1 Gondola uses annually. Each year since, the resort has bumped up its commitment and is now GMP's biggest cow power sponsor. Last year, Killington funded nearly one million kilowatt-hours at a cost of $40,000, which is about four percent of the mountain's yearly energy use. It is the only ski resort in America to directly support the generation of local cow power.
Killington’s K-1 Gondola, powered by cow poop. PHOTO: Chandler Burgess
Bill Black, a skier who has lived in Killington with his wife Joy since the early '90s, is proud of the resort's decision. "I think it's wonderful that the resort is leading in the initiative," he says. "It's very creative. People don't believe it. Like, really? It would make a great T-shirt. It's hilarious."
Power mined from cow manure does seem completely absurd. It's cow crap. Yet, cow power—biofuel is the official name—accomplishes two green energy goals simultaneously: It displaces the use of fossil fuels and also prevents existing greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere.
Total emissions from the agricultural sector accounted for nine percent of the United State's annual greenhouse gases in 2013, and 12 percent of that wafts directly off the one billion tons of manure American livestock produce annually.
Last year, Killington funded nearly one million kilowatt-hours at a cost of $40,000, which is about four percent of the mountain's yearly energy use. It is the only ski resort in America to directly support the generation of local cow power.
Enter Vermont's dairy farmers.
Farmers who make cow power push all the fresh manure directly into their on-site anaerobic digester, a large, heated cement holding tank, which seals the manure away from oxygen to create an environment where anaerobic bacteria thrive and from which greenhouse gases cannot escape. Making cow power is kind of like brewing beer: Keep out the air, and something magical happens inside.
In this case, anaerobic bacteria break down the manure's molecular chains, which produces biogas. The biogas, which are 60 percent methane and very combustible, get sent to a reciprocating engine. The energy created there is then either rerouted back to the farm for internal use or fed into the GMP electrical system to be distributed to customers like Killington.
On a national scale, replacing coal and manure greenhouse gas emissions with those of livestock biogas production would reduce the country's annual emissions by, at most, four percent, according to numbers published by Amanda D. Cuellar and Michael E. Webber, leading researchers on biofuel. The potential biofuel available in America could save eight billion gallons of gasoline each year. And if Vermonters harnessed the raw power of their dairy cows, they could run over 11 Killington-sized mountains a year on cow power.
For the moment, though, Killington is the lone, cow-powered company in the ski industry.
Killington is used to being first. The K1 chairlift is New England's old faithful, usually the first to start unloading skiers at the summit each fall. "Our season goes longer than every ski area in the east because we make more snow than anybody," says Black. It's a Vermont tradition. "But," he also says, "if you're going to live and die on that business plan, making these commitments [to reduce environmental impact] are difficult."
Energy expenditures on snowmaking exceed 50 percent of Killington's total energy use. It would cost $500,000 on top of the usual energy bill, annually, to run Killington's entire snowmaking operations on cow power.
That's because the expectation of six months of snow cover in today's unstable climate is likely more harmful to the environment than turning the lifts with fossil fuels. Last winter, Mother Nature was kind to the Northeast with consistent cold temperatures, which eased the pressure on snowmaking. Perhaps the cows had something to do with it.
Marquee photo: Killington is a cow-friendly ski resort. PHOTO: Chandler Burgess