Death Valley is High Point in Joel Southall’s ‘Green’ Career Path

2/19/2009 By Glenn Hasek

Name: Joel Southall
Title: Director of Environmental Health & Safety
Company: Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Death Valley National Park
Years with company: 1.5 years
My primary responsibilities: “I manage the environmental initiatives here and oversee worker health and safety as well.”
Organization’s most significant environmental accomplishment so far: “Our solar installation which includes 5,740 panels and generates one megawatt of electricity.”
Our biggest environmental challenge: “Trying to reduce our waste generation. It is a challenge because we are so remote here in our Death Valley location. It is a challenge in terms of hauling waste away and getting supplies here.”
What I like most about what I do: “I really enjoy being able to see change affected quickly. I can see the impact of what I am doing.”
What advice I would give to a student considering this type of career: “Volunteer as much as possible and pursue internship opportunities. Experience is key, even when you are in school. You learn so much from doing.”

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIF.—When Joel Southall first went to college, it was not his intent to work in the hospitality industry. He had an interest in animal behavior research while at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. While studying at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, however, he realized he was much better suited for a job that would allow him to quickly see the practical, positive results of his work.

Southall found his ideal job with Xanterra Parks and Resorts. He began working in September 2007 at the company’s Death Valley National Park location where the company runs the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort. The property has received national attention for its many awards and especially for its four-acre solar installation that Southall helps to oversee. The solar panels began generating electricity last June.

Xanterra has a reputation for taking the maintenance mantra, “What gets measured, gets done,” very seriously—an ideal environment to work in for a detail-oriented individual like Southall. Ecometrix is the name of Xanterra’s program for collecting data in areas such as material waste, and energy and water consumption. Ecometrix data adheres to ISO 14001 standards and is consistently audited internally and externally for accuracy.

“We are currently finalizing our 2008 Ecometrix data,” Southall says.

Significant Net Drop in Power Consumption

Early results indicate the solar plant contributed significantly to reducing the property’s environmental impact last year. There was a 14.9 percent net drop in electricity consumption from 2007 to 2008 and that was with the solar installation up and running only about six months. Lighting retrofits also contributed to the savings. For example, 100-watt incandescent flood lights in the resort’s museum were replaced with 13-watt compact fluorescents and 75-watt incandescent fan lights in one of the property’s restaurants were replaced with 7-watt cold cathode bulbs. Water consumption decreased 8.9 percent thanks to low-flow showerheads and toilets and selective planting and irrigation around the resort’s 18-hole golf course (the world’s lowest course at 214 feet below sea level).

Southall says Xanterra pays particularly close attention to how it deals with waste on the property. As many materials as possible are reused. When the solar panels were installed, Xanterra could have chosen to have the vegetative debris hauled away. Instead, it was ground up and converted to mulch that was spread around the solar facility to help control dust. Also of note, during the installation of the panels, more than 144 date palm trees were relocated.

Because of the resort’s location, where temperatures can reach 130 degrees during the summer months, controlling energy costs related to air-conditioning is a challenge. The Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort is managing its power demands effectively, however. Xanterra just announced that the property has received an award from Flex Your Power, California’s energy efficiency and conservation campaign, for the resort’s successes in peak demand response.

Smart Planning Pays Off

In partnership with Southern California Edison, the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort reduced peak load during demand response events by a maximum of 1,000 kW, or 50 percent of its peak load. Furnace Creek accomplished this reduction by shutting down unused buildings, shifting golf course irrigation pump use and golf cart charging to off peak periods, and completing laundry operations earlier than normal.

“A key to our success was our extensive employee outreach program and our employees’ subsequent buy-in,” said Southall in a press release announcing the demand response award. “For example, our front desk agents now consolidate guestrooms by individual buildings rather than spreading them out so that we can turn off the air-conditioning for the day in buildings not used.”

Giving up animal behavior research in favor of hospitality has turned out to be a wise choice for Southall. He gets to work at one of the greenest resorts on the planet in the middle of some of the West’s most scenic surroundings. And, if he should ever feel the need to study animal behavior again, the golf course is just a short hike away—coyotes roam freely there, as well as the occasional bobcat.

Go to the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort.

Glenn Hasek can be reached at editor@greenlodgingnews.com.


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