Health spas have long championed the connection between wellness and lifestyle choices. They teach us that the components of healthy living allow us to better steward our own well-being.
One spa — Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs — is taking the concept one step further by leveraging the Coachella Valley’s abundant solar capital to become the first carbon neutral resort in North America. This fall, the resort will add 1,824 300-watt photovoltaic panels and partner with utility company Pear Energy to help install 3.5 acres of solar modules — an array with the capacity to generate enough energy to meet all of the resort’s power needs.
Two Bunch Palms CEO Kevin Kelly says it’s time to align personal and planetary wellness. “Within the leisure travel industry, there’s a strong wellness and healthy lifestyle component,” he says. Industry research is “consistently finding that 80 to 90 percent of people who are interested in healthy vacations also care about the environment and sustainability. There’s no disconnect between their own health and the health of the planet.
“Our company looked at this strategy as an investment,” he says. “We have the natural resources of the oasis, and those resources have attracted very good practitioners. Those two are half of our story of wellness.” Becoming carbon neutral was a logical next step. “It’s the right thing to do if we care authentically about well-being. The health of the planet, this community, the valley, and our people are all interconnected. This is a smart business decision that allows us to exercise our value system.”
And one that may also set a new standard for holistic health, not only in California but also nationally and internationally. This private commercial venture amounts to “an environmental renewable energy bank,” according to Brian Levy, a vice president of Pear Energy. “We make renewable energy affordable.”
“Pear is building a new business model for making places carbon neutral — and that’s a big deal,” Kelly says, adding that this model will bring Two Bunch Palms into the 21st century. “Making the resort carbon neutral is the historical equivalent of when electrical power was brought in for the first time.”
The effort is a logical progression for the resort. Founded on the site of an oasis identified for centuries by two bunches of palms fed by its spring waters, the resort now provides sanctuary and renewal as a wellness destination. Honoring its earthly gifts, Two Bunch Palms already has high environmental sustainability standards that include recycling and water-reuse programs; energy-efficient water heaters, windows, and doors; and nontoxic cleaning supplies. Harnessing the power of the sun — while reining in energy costs — shines a bright light on this commitment.
Pear Energy shares similar values. Beyond its commitment to providing “freedom from public health and safety dangers, 100 percent clean energy that reverses climate change, and new jobs for U.S. workers building the green energy economy,” notes the company’s website, Pear also donates 50 percent of its profits to other groups dedicated to “environmental sanity and a fair economy.”
This is the first major project in California for 3-year-old Pear Energy, a Florida-based firm founded by Robert Pollin. A professor of economics and founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Pollin, who is also the company’s president, has been researching how to build a green energy economy. He serves as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other organizations. Pollin has, as Levy notes, “put his money where his models are.”
The two companies interface through a financial power purchase agreement. Under the agreement, Pear acts as investor and installer. Purchasing its arrays from Lumos, based in Canada, Pear facilitates the installation with no investment from Two Bunch Palms other than the use of its land. Pear’s financials benefit from city and state tax incentives, while Two Bunch Palms benefits from fixed energy costs: The spa resort will purchase its power from Pear at 2013 rates for the next 21 years. At the end of the contractual period, the host (Two Bunch Palms) has the option to purchase the solar array for a nominal fee and produce its own energy or choose to continue purchasing power from the investor (Pear). “The arrangement is a triple win — for Two Bunch Palms, Pear Energy, and the environment,” Levy says.
On the ground, the 550-kilowatt system will generate enough energy to cover the resort’s average annual electricity usage. The 1,824 tilted solar modules will be installed in a series of rows spaced 10 feet apart in an area to the west of — and out of view from — the property’s guest buildings. On days when the resort may use more energy than usual, it draws power from the grid. The meter will run backward to average out to zero. “It’s net energy metering, based on what you put in and what you take out,” Levy explains. By avoiding the escalation of energy costs, the resort has known operational savings, which can then be reinvested into the guest experience. “Wellness is a mission-driven space,” Kelly says. “If there’s a choice where we might economically only break even, we do it if we think it’s the right thing to do.”
Over its 21-year life, the renewable energy project will soften the health and environmental impact of carbon-fueled power plants by eliminating 12 million pounds of carbon from entering the atmosphere and saving the 400 million gallons of water necessary for traditional turbine plants.
According to Kelly, there are three important reasons Two Bunch Palms believes now is the right time to introduce this initiative. “First, by locking in energy costs at 2013 rates, we avoid the 3 to 4 percent historic annual utility hikes, thus allowing those savings to flow to the bottom line,” Kelly says. “Second, the connection between health and the environment is not new to our customers, so Two Bunch Palms is actually catching up to the sentiments of a majority of its guests. Finally, by raising the ‘sustainability’ bar in the spa and wellness industry, Two Bunch Palms is distinguishing its brand for many leisure spa travelers.”
With the dramatic display located not far from the road, a development agreement with the city required it be set back 25 feet from Two Bunch Palms Trail to avoid driver distraction. Strategic landscaping will also discreetly screen the array. But hiding the source of the resort’s carbon neutral status is hardly the point. “Our goal is to use this as a teaching center,” Kelly says. Two Bunch Palms plans to set up a kiosk and staffed information area by the solar field entrance. “We want to make sure there’s enough of a visual component that’s more than booklets,” Kelly says. This may include being able to watch energy being measured at a kiosk next to the solar field. “We want to use the display to tell a powerful story.”
Although the hospitality industry has not standardized the measure of carbon neutrality, increasing numbers of properties are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. In this context, the term includes heating and cooling systems, electricity, and even transportation of goods and services. While a few participate in renewable energy systems (Post Ranch Inn’s 990-panel solar array in Big Sur is one notable example), most reduce their carbon footprints by purchasing offsets such as funding reforestation projects that help compensate for any carbon dioxide emissions.
In addition to its new solar field and the various green initiatives already in place, Two Bunch Palms will likely add amenities such as Prius and Tesla recharging stations and more electric-powered golf carts for guest transport. A new spa building and 40 additional guest rooms scheduled for construction in 2015 and 2016 will likely be LEED-certified. With its holistic commitment to carbon neutrality and the guest experience, Two Bunch Palms is setting a higher bar for American wellness resorts.
“Wellness tourism is an important element in the development of the Coachella Valley,” Kelly says. “The next level is to understand and connect individual health with planetary health. Beyond the strong market assets that have helped define the tourism dollars that define this valley, we are, I think, in a space that’s going to increase and enhance tourism and wellness tourism. I think we’re adding to the value of the valley.”