The Aspen Skiing Co. is investing $6 million to harvest methane emissions from a coal mine in Somerset, Colo. and convert the greenhouse gas into renewable energy for the local grid.
SkiCo president and CEO Mike Kaplan outlined the project Monday at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) Forests at Risk Symposium, holding it up as an example of how the forest and snow-dependent ski industry ought to combat climate change.
“It’s an incredible story,” Kaplan said. “It’s going to offset 100 percent of our energy consumption.”
It also will eliminate three times the company’s annual carbon emissions, Kaplan claimed.
The conversion plan, a collaboration between SkiCo, Holy Cross Energy and Denver-based Vesells Coal Gas, could generate 25 million kilowatt hours — roughly equivalent to the four-mountain operation’s annual energy use. Methane emissions from Somerset’s Oxbow mine, which currently go directly into the atmosphere will instead be converted and put into the Holy Cross grid.
Kaplan argued that the project is scalable across the West, and should be embraced by other snow-dependent resorts.
“Guess what? This can be replicated,” he said, in remarks that bluntly addressed the bottom-line business sense of protecting forests and snow for his company and the ski industry. “Stop, think about those threats, look at opportunities like this, and see if we can’t tackle this [climate change] problem at scale.”
Methane missions from the plant, Kaplan noted, are 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide — and go directly into the atmosphere.
Kaplan called it “the most exciting project I’ve ever been involved with” and gave the forest-centric crowd a thumbnail sketch of his company’s evolution on climate change action — from basic recycling efforts in the ’90s, to small-scale solar power projects, education efforts, lobbying Congress for climate change legislation, and the new methane conversion project.
He said company officials learned from early renewable energy projects, like solar arrays at Aspen Highlands, that they needed to look for bigger, systemic solutions.
“It’s greenwashing,” he said of the Highlands solar installation. “It’s 2 [kilowatts]. It’s not even enough to power the control headquarters that’s right next to it.”
The ACES symposium opened Sunday evening at Aspen Meadows and ran through Monday at the Doerr-Hosier Center. The lineup of speakers and participants included federal foresters, climate change experts and nonprofit leaders. Its proceedings played out as drought conditions persist in Aspen and across the region, and firefighters struggled to contain wildfires across Colorado and the West.
Harris Sherman, the undersecretrary of agriculture, had been scheduled to give the symposium’s keynote address on Monday. But he was called away to the Front Range to man the command center for the ongoing High Park fire outside Fort Collins. It’s among eight significant wildfires currently burning in Colorado.
“It was very important for him to be there as part of the command center to make decisions,” said Bill Ritter, the former Colorado governor and emcee of the symposium proceedings.
The symposium’s presentations linked climate change to forest health problems like drought, wildfire and bark pine beetle infestation. Kaplan framed climate change as an existential threat to Aspen’s livelihood, and way of life.
“Forests are dying before our eyes and it’s not going to be good for Colorado tourism, much less the ski business,” he said. “We face a number of threats in this industry — first and foremost it’s about climate change and addressing climate change at scale.”
Bob Bonar, president of Snowbird Resort in Utah, spoke of the need for private-public partnerships to tackle forest health and assist the U.S. Forest Service. His focus on collaboration was echoed throughout Monday’s presentations from the likes of state Sen. Gail Schwartz, ACES CEO Chris Lane, Nature Conservancy strategist Frank Lowenstein and National Forest Foundation president Bill Possiell.
Bonar spoke about his role on the board of the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, a nonprofit focused on forest health in the mountains and headwaters of Utah.
The feds simply can’t adequately fund forest health initiatives, he argued, so it’s up to the ski industry and partners to do so.
“We’re working very hard to do a lot of different things and focus on the simple things that, because of funding cuts in the Forest Service, just don’t seem to get done as well as they should,” he said.
The foundation takes on projects ranging from trash pick-ups and noxious weed treatments, to planting new seedlings and educating skiers and children about the West’s mountain ecosystem and the threats it’s facing.
Much like local efforts by the Aspen nonprofit For the Forest, which merged with ACES last year, the foundation has backed mine reclamation projects, and selective removal and treatment of beetle-infested pine trees around the resort.
Bonar also buttered up the Aspen contingent in the crowd by referring to Utah’s ski resorts as “the red-headed stepchildren” of the industry.