Concerns about the impact of climate change have grown rapidly in recent years, but superintendents were working to reduce the carbon footprint of their courses long before it became trendy.

Following best practices on water usage, fuel consumption and utilization of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides has always been the hallmark of a well-run property, but golf course professionals are getting help in their efforts. The propane industry, for example, has identified golf as an opportunity to drive growth while helping the environment. And while the USGA has always been a valuable resource, the association has stepped up its efforts in recent years by developing an online tool to help courses increase their efficiency.

The PERC Golf Demo Program

A few years back, the propane industry took a closer look at golf courses to see if there was an opportunity to make a difference for the environment. At that time, the effort was more of a fact-finding mission, according to Jeremy Wishart, deputy director of business development for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

Jeremy Wishart

“It wasn’t much more than two years ago that the propane industry first started looking at golf courses to see if there was an opportunity to help them reduce their carbon footprint,” he says. “Most people only see the end result of the work, when the course is green and beautiful. They don’t always see the old equipment driving around and spitting noxious fumes from the tailpipe.”

The newest and most advanced diesel engines have made great strides to reduce the pollutants they produce, but those gains have been made by incorporating complex emissions-reducing technologies. It not only adds to the upfront costs, but also can increase downtime and lead to expensive repairs.

While cleaner-burning propane can certainly help cut down on air pollution caused by gasoline and diesel engines, its impact goes well beyond emissions. “Courses that make the transition to propane can also cut back on their oil consumption, all while increasing productivity and reducing operating costs,” Wishart says.

To illustrate the positive impact propane can have on a course, PERC selected eight courses from around the country in 2015 to participate in a pilot program. Not surprisingly, the most striking result was a reduction in fuel costs. On average, the courses saved 35 percent to 40 percent on fuel versus gasoline and diesel, with one course reaching a 50 percent reduction. One of the primary reasons is that golf courses can negotiate long-term contracts with propane suppliers, protecting them from price spikes.

Anthony Williams

Superintendents who want to make the change to propane can convert existing equipment – particularly if it’s still fairly new – or buy new equipment from R&R Products, a manufacturer of machinery and replacement parts for the golf and turf industry based in Tucson, Arizona.

For its pilot program, the eight courses were given four propane-fueled R&R machines each, and the equipment was very well-received, averaging a score of 8.9 out of 10. When the rating was based on maintenance alone, it was even higher, with an average score of 9.2.

One of the properties in the study was Stone Mountain Golf Course in Stone Mountain, Georgia, which at the time was managed by Anthony Williams, who is now the director of golf course maintenance and landscaping at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas.

“I was very excited to be chosen to participate in the propane case study,” Williams says. He had already done extensive work tracking his course’s carbon footprint using Syngenta’s Ecomeasure tool and knew Stone Mountain had a negative carbon footprint. “We had already been using a propane-powered forklift for years so it seemed logical to try expanding the use of propane within our operation.”

He was pleased with the results – he rated all four machines used in the trial with a perfect score of 10 and reduced his fuel consumption between 25 percent and 40 percent (depending on the machine).

It’s about more than money

Fuel cost reduction was a plus, but Wishart says transitioning to propane also offers:

Maintenance is easier. As a clean-burning fuel, propane cuts down on carbon deposits and requires fewer oil changes. “That’s especially true when compared with diesel engines,” which can consume twice as much oil as a propane version, he says.

Propane is a closed fuel source. “In addition to a quieter, cleaner-running piece of equipment, the eight superintendents in the pilot program loved the fact that they could eliminate fuel spills, which can damage turf and contaminate the water system,” Wishart says.

Refuel on the fly. There are two refueling options for propane: install on-site infrastructure or join a cylinder-exchange program. On-site installation includes at least one large tank and a no-spill dispenser, and workers simply take empty containers to the dispensing area to refill them.

In the exchange program, a propane supplier delivers full tanks to the property; workers take the full cylinders to the equipment when it is needed. That saves time because the equipment can be refueled wherever it is on the course without returning to the fueling station.

With propane, superintendents have options for refueling, including a cylinder exchange program that allows empty cylinders to be swapped out with full ones while the equipment is still deployed on the property.

“When you add up all of those factors, propane offers the lowest total cost of ownership of any type of fuel,” Wishart says.

Williams evaluated all aspects of the propane equipment’s performance.

“Like any equipment purchase, there are challenges that must be met for providing the proper level of course conditioning before equipment is added to the fleet,” he says. “We evaluated the quality of cut, fuel costs, operator comfort/safety, noise and tier 4 pollution requirements, horsepower and climbing ability, turning radius and a few course-specific items. The equipment performed well but the fairway unit was by far the best in the propane fleet.”

USGA arms superintendents with web-based analysis tool

There are many images that might come to mind when people think of climate change, but a lush, green golf course is rarely among them. If anything, the perfectly manicured fairways and greens summon up the exact opposite perception – one of a healthy and thriving ecosystem.

But golfers rarely see what goes on behind the scenes, and while the industry has made great strides to address its impact on the environment, superintendents know there are still ways to improve.

“I believe golf course superintendents are aware of climate change issues and that how they maintain their golf course can change the carbon footprint,” says Dr. Mike Kenna, director of USGA’s Green Section Research. “However, after the recession, managing resources such as water, fuel, agricultural chemicals, electricity and labor have been more important but also help reduce the golf course footprint.”

Superintendents now have a new tool to help minimize their environmental impact: USGA Resource Management, an online resource that helps them manage their facilities more precisely, efficiently and productively. Launched in March, it’s a map-based tool that allows facility managers to better understand and optimize their consumption of resources such as water, fuel and labor. It can provide accurate measurements down to the square foot.

Users can conduct “what if” analyses to see the potential impact their maintenance changes would have, as well as generate visual maps of golfer traffic. That helps with distribution of resources and ensuring the areas that have the greatest impact on the golfer’s experience get the biggest share of attention.

The USGA has also supported preliminary research to evaluate carbon sequestration versus emission of greenhouse gases on a golf course. “Maintained turfgrass areas sequester around one metric ton of carbon per acre,” Kenna says. “The golf course alone is close to being carbon neutral. When the clubhouse, golf carts and other activities off the course are added, the golf course is no longer carbon neutral.”

Help is also coming from academia and government institutions. Researchers at Colorado State University have been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Greenhouse Gas Reduction through the Agricultural Carbon Enhancement Network, also known as GRACEnet.

Going forward, Kenna cites three top challenges most superintendents will face when trying to reduce their course’s footprint:

  1. Maintenance of out-of-play areas,
  2. Nitrogen fertilization, and
  3. Water conservation.

Reducing the footprint of maintained turfgrass areas proportionally reduces the resources needed, Kenna says. “Selecting a nitrogen source that is less volatile can also help a great deal,” he adds. “Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Irrigation systems require a lot of electricity to run the pumps, as well as the amount used to clean and deliver recycled or potable water to the golf course.”

While it’s always a good idea for a golf course to promote the steps it’s taking to protect the environment, the average golfer might or might not notice the effort. They’re usually more worried about the quality of playing surfaces and the cost of green fees or memberships.

But the people responsible for maintaining the idyllic conditions know their hard work behind the scenes is making a difference. Superintendents that are using their resources efficiently and providing a well-conditioned golf course should take pride in the knowledge that they are making strides to reduce their property’s carbon footprint, Kenna says.