Northern Michigan Ski Resorts: Crystal Mountain and Sustainability

Northern Michigan Ski Resorts: Crystal Mountain and Sustainability

Over the past decade the term “sustainability” has taken on a wide range of definitions. Sustainability no longer just means eating organic foods, buying local or recycling. Sustainability is a whole new area of practice where businesses can develop strategies that consider what’s best for their people, the planet and their bottom line. Several businesses in Northern Michigan are sustainable or have implemented sustainable business practices. To learn more about how sustainability is working in the “real world” I spoke with Jim MacInnnes, a professional engineer with extensive experience in the electrical power industry, and president and CEO of one of Northern Michigan’s highest profile companies, Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa in Thompsonville, Michigan.

When I sat down with MacInnes we began talking about the term “sustainability” and what it means to be sustainable as a business. MacInnes feels that sustainability is quickly becoming an overused term and prefers to use the term “resilience” instead. Resilience is a more practical term and can easily be superimposed on the business processes used at Crystal Mountain to continually improve their facilities, he says. Resilience, as MacInnes uses the term, can be summarized as a dedication to the following ideas:

  •  Staying around, “being a long term employer” and provider for local stakeholders.
  •  Working in concert with nature and conducting business with the least amount of environmental impact as possible.
  •  Achieving efficiencies by reducing consumption and using fewer resources.

In a guidepost sense, resilience is a term that defines a system (or a business) that is able to handle both the expected and unexpected shocks thrown at it and is able to return to a normal state of operation unharmed over the long term.

KP: How does CMR define itself as a sustainable (“resilient”) business?

JM: There are lots of projects we are working on to continually improve our performance and offerings for our guests. For example, we continually make improvements to our snowmaking equipment based upon the season’s forecasted weather patterns. We have a group of 10 to 12 very experienced people who work to achieve optimal performance of the snow making system so that every year, no matter what the weather pattern our snowmaking gets better and better.

KP: The resort’s Crystal Spa is a LEED Certified facility, what does this mean in sustainability terms for the company?

JM: Well, as an example, the HVAC system at Crystal Spa employs an innovative strategy for heating and cooling. The system uses several pumps, heat exchangers and chilling condensers to reduce consumption of energy and materials, and it has the capacity to recapture heat in the cooler months and uses ground water for cooling in the summer months. This past October the Crystal Spa was awarded the first ever “Sustainable Resort Spa of the Year” by the Green Spa Network.

[Other important improvements that have affected CMR’s bottom line are the replacement of over 150,000 little bottles of shampoo and conditioner used in guest rooms and around the resort with refillable containers of products for hair and hands. On the golf course they have developed a “green tee” which is made from their own grass clippings and water. The tees, if left behind, naturally decompose on the golf course with no harm done to the environment. These two simple measures have eliminated the cost of purchasing some of the “one and done” products and replaced them with more sustainable alternatives.]

KP: What does CMR do for its employees?

JM: Great question. We recently were named one of ‘Michigan’s Healthiest Employers’ by Crain’s Detroit Business and Priority Health. Nine years ago we began offering use of our spa facilities for our employees free of charge and have initiated a “Peak Performance Challenge” rewards program that allows employees to earn credits for gifts, including spa treatments. Our employees are more physically active and they are happier as a result when they come to work. For us, this translates into a better guest experience and fewer absences or injuries.

KP: Environmental stewardship and focusing on providing employees a great place to work are important aspects of sustainability; but without a focus on profits your business wouldn’t last very long, how are you managing the almighty bottom line in a sustainable way?

JM: When CMR makes improvements like we recently did with our light bulbs, we don’t just look at the simple payback. We also look at the savings we will enjoy for many years to come as a big part of the added value of the upgrade. For example, the lighting project we recently completed involved 250 bulbs at a savings of over 75,000 kilowatt-hours per year. The simple payback for this project was calculated at approximately ¾ of one year to get to a positive return on investment in the light bulbs, but the savings we forecast over the next several years is literally found money for us. Energy conservation is really the cheapest, lowest risk, environmental-friendliest way to supply energy.

KP: As an electrical engineer and a strong advocate for renewable energy, how do you see us replacing some of the power we use here in Michigan? Is going local a sustainable choice here?

JM: No, I don’t think that local is the best choice here. Local is part of the solution but will need to be enhanced by some regional power sources. The idea of a partnership of local and regional power providers follows my advocacy of building a more robust, resilient power supply with the least amount of consumption and use of resources. There is a balance that needs to be struck between local power suppliers and regional grids like the one we make use of here in Michigan called MISO (Midwest Independent System Operator), MISO is an 11-state regional power provider. These partnerships have a “sweet spot” which is the lowest cost solution between power provided locally and power provided regionally and these partners are better equipped to handle shortfalls locally without taking the whole regional grid down. Renewables are important source of energy, but one of the biggest challenges with them locally or nationally is how to store the energy. Once cost effective storage comes on line (like batteries), storage renewables will be a greater mix of our power supply. That’s why a mix of power supplied by local and regional providers makes the most sense.

KP: What do you see as the most recent significant improvement in our approach to energy usage here in United States?

JM: There are a number of great new things happening which will serve to promote greater energy conservation, but I think that the most significant thing lately has been the increase in fuel efficiency standards put forth by the current administration in Washington. These new standards have a great many positive effects, not only will it reduce our dependency on foreign oil but it will greatly reduce the amount of energy we use, which, as I have mentioned before, energy conservation is a win-win for all of us. The new 54.5 mpg standard by 2025 will accelerate innovation, production and development of electric batteries here in the United States. Batteries have real promise in providing a viable solution for the storage problem of renewable energy. Once harnessed, this renewable power segment will help to reduce the power load we all use every day. [MacInnes drives a Chevy Volt and has charging stations at the resort with potential plans to convert fleet vehicles to electric power in the future. He believes that the energy stored by batteries can easily be shared with the grid to help us all to conserve energy.]

Jim MacInnes has worked in the power business for over three decades. He holds a Professional Engineers license and has been an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He also chairs the Michigan Utility Consumer Participation Board.

 Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa is located in Thompsonville, Michigan, about 30 miles southwest of Traverse City. For more information about this award-winning, sustainable business visit crystalmountain.com.

Kirstin Policastro is completing a master’s degree in sustainable business practices.  

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