For the past 15 years, golf architect Andy Staples has been touting the process of carbon sequestration on golf courses as a way to make facilities not only more environmentally friendly, but also as a way to reduce expenses.
When he first delved into what was then a nascent field through his firm, Scottsdale, Arizona-based Staples Golf, the golf course industry appeared poised to embrace the science behind determining a layout’s carbon footprint and do what it could to decrease output and increase sequestration.
Somewhere along the line, however, the momentum was lost. While the topic of carbon sequestration has not vanished, it has moved far down the list of environmental priorities.
“I’ve been saying the same thing for 15 years. I don’t feel like I’m getting any traction,” Staples says.
Many golf course superintendents have no desire to learn anything about sequestration.
“Some are interested. And the ones that are interested are very interested,” Staples says. “However, it’s still considered work to investigate your carbon footprint. Not many courses are tracking all the necessary inputs in order to truly calculate their footprints.”
Staples Golf partnered with Stuart Cohen, president of Environment and Turf Services, to create a joint-program called Carbonsave for Golf. According to Staples’ website, their research indicates that over 60 percent of a course’s carbon footprint can be attributed to energy use. The next largest contributor is fertilizer and chemical use. Golf courses, though, also sequester carbon.
One factor in the superintendents’ lack of interest might be attributed to the fact that the actual golf course and the maintenance of it are often at or close to carbon neutral. The problem is the clubhouse with its heating and cooling units, golf cars, paper usage and Styrofoam containers.
On the maintenance side, according to Staples, a prime target to reduce carbon output is the pumping station. Even then, courses as a whole are ahead of the curve.
“Overall, golf courses are above average in overall efficiency compared to old (non-golf-related) well pumps,” Staples says. “Does that mean each golf course is reaching maximum efficiency? No.”
According to Staples, the desert courses, like the ones in Las Vegas, have the biggest opportunities to reduce power usage and carbon output. The strategy involves using pumps with small horsepower but also running pumps at off-peak hours and alone instead of multiple pumps together as a way to reduce the environmental impact.
While the initial enthusiasm behind carbon sequestering has subsided, there remain groups within the golf course industry that realize the importance of sequestration.
Mark Johnson, assistant director of environmental programs for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, says the topic of reducing the carbon footprint falls under environmental best management practices, such as energy conservation. A more efficient pumping station, for instance, is better for the environment, reducing water usage as well as cutting carbon output even though that is not a specified goal.
“They are out there doing the things that improve the environmental footprint overall,” Johnson says of superintendents.
According to Staples, the industry powers have not lost interest. The United States Golf Association has talked with Staples about Carbonsave for Golf.
“It’s definitely been quiet, but work is still being done. I know many organizations in golf have been researching what it means, and are beginning to position themselves in the event it gets back on the front burner,” he says. “Just because it’s been quiet doesn’t mean there hasn’t been work done in this area.”
In 2013, the findings of a study conducted on the amount of nitrous oxide released during fertilization of golf courses was published by Colorado State University and the Greenhouse Gas Reduction through Agricultural Carbon Enhancement Network (GRACEnet) of the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with 298 times greater global warming potential than CO2. Methane is at least 22 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Additional research by Colorado State and the USGA-ARS is underway. The CSU turf program is conducting an online carbon survey of Colorado courses. The goal, according to the website, “is to develop a better understanding of the roles carbon sequestration and carbon emissions play in the management of golf courses and what impact golf course operational activities have on the environment. Critical benchmarks identified during the project will provide information that will inform the golf course management community regarding greater resource use efficiencies and improved environmental performance.”
The unknown in the carbon sequestration realm is whether or not carbon credits will one day become a reality. If they do, then golf courses could be looking to the credits as a way to increase revenue.
The scenario works like this: States or the federal government have set limits on how much carbon an entity such as a coal-burning power plant could emit. If the plant exceeds the limit, the company is fined. The cost to retool older power plants in order to get them to meet current standards would be cost prohibitive. The owners of the plants would then purchase carbon credits from outside sources, such as golf courses, that sequester more carbon than they produce, and earn credits in doing son. The purchase of the credits would theoretically spur on carbon sequestering as a way to make money and, thus, reduce the overall output of dangerous gasses into the atmosphere.
According to Staples, the carbon credits would be sold on the open market much like corn or soybean futures. Because the idea has yet to come to fruition, it is unknown what the value of a carbon credit would be and how much the price would fluctuate over time and region.
There might be a move toward carbon credits before the year is over, Staples says.
“President Obama has been pretty aggressive in pushing his environmental agenda,” he adds. “I think you’ll see more of a push before the end of his term.”
California, according to Staples, spends $4 billion a year in an attempt to reduce power consumption in the state. Free audits are paid by power companies so homeowners and businesses can study power usage and other factors in an effort to reduce carbon production.
While carbon credits are hypothetical at this time, the value of promoting golf as an environmentally friendly business sector is real. The fact that golf courses, not including the clubhouse, are often close to or at carbon neutral would seem to be a fact the course maintenance industry would want to tout.
“I think we are missing a good opportunity to promote our industry as forward thinking and truly sustainable,” Staples says. “This could be considered one of those few times where we have a unique message that would resonate with the general non-golfing public. Combine this with water conservation efforts, and golf really could get on the cover of a lot of news outlets, promoting our efforts when few would expect it. I think that would be pretty cool.”