Aspen Skiing Co. unveiled on Friday the region’s first power plant that converts harmful methane gas from coal mines into energy.
The power plant is located at the Elk Creek Coal Mine in Somerset, Colo. Elk Creek is the second active underground coal mine west of the Mississippi to generate electricity from methane gas that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
The project is a collaboration between SkiCo, Holy Cross Energy, Denver-based Vesells Coal Gas, which developed the technology, Gunnison Energy and Oxbow Mining LLC, which operates the mine and is owned by oil tycoon and billionaire Bill Koch.
The power plant works by capturing methane gasses that come out of vents, which are required by law to protect workers. The gas is then pushed through a conversion facility, where it is pressurized and refined, and sent to one of three 1-megawatt generators. The electricity produced from the generators goes to the Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s (DMEA) power line and crosses four transmission systems before Holy Cross Energy receives it.
Holy Cross agreed to purchase the power generated from the project and SkiCo invested $5.5 million in the power plant early this year. Once it is online, SkiCo will receive 12 percent of the energy revenues, which will pay off the initial investment in about seven years, said Auden Schendler, SkiCo’s vice president of sustainability.
The 3-megawatt power plant is expected to generate 24 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. That almost matches up to the 27 million kilowatt-hours of energy that SkiCo businesses and the company’s four mountains consume every year, Schendler said.
Elk Creek vents enough methane to generate almost 20 megawatts of power, but expanding the current power plant to process that much methane is years away due to political and legal hurdles that need to be addressed first, Schendler said. Currently, the power plant burns the extra methane not used to produce energy — which has less of an environmental impact than if released directly into the atmosphere — which enables it to sell credits to businesses that want to offset their energy use.
“There’s just a lot of methane,” Schendler said. “We haven’t even begun to tap all of it.”
Schendler said he was excited and thrilled to have a role in the project, because it’s rare to be able to execute real-time solutions to environmental problems.
“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done related to clean energy,” he said. “It’s so rare you actually do something. It’s huge.”
SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan echoed Schendler’s sentiment and said he was surprised that organizations with such opposing interests like a coal mine and an environmentally conscious ski company could find a solution that works for everyone, he said.
When Kaplan entered the ski industry 30 years ago, he never imagined he would be standing at a coal mine talking about his business’ latest partnership, he said.
In light of the recent election, the project should serve as a reminder not to get frustrated or disheartened by people with opposing interests, Kaplan said.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony also included a reading of letters from Sen. Mark Udall and Sen. Michael Bennet praising the bipartisan work.
“Congress could learn a thing or two from you,” Bennet wrote.
State Sen. Gail Schwartz and state Rep. Millie Hamner attended the ceremony, as did Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch. Schwartz and Hamner attended the event partly due to their plans to re-introduce a bill Schwartz sponsored that would make methane gas considered a renewable energy. The measure would provide incentives for coal mines to capture methane and sell it as a power source.
While attendees praised the project for its bipartisan collaborations, Koch, CEO of Oxbow Carbon LLC, was notably absent from the event. Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland and Western Slope environmental activist Ed Marston said earlier this week that they were told they weren’t welcome to attend after receiving previous invitations. Being uninvited was apparently due to their stance against Koch in some high-profile environmental disputes, one of which is the city of Aspen’s effort to build a hydroelectric plant. Ireland has accused Koch — who has a mansion along Castle Creek where water would be diverted for the hydroelectric plant — of being the money behind the opposition group fighting the project.