From coal mine to clean energy


At first glance, the man greeting visitors last Friday at the start of the gravel road leading to Elk Creek mine, a coal mine in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, might have been mistaken for a miner. His bright orange vest and black hardhat looked the part. But both items lacked the black dust that settles on the clothes of men who work the mine daily. Upon rolling down their windows, and getting a closer look, reporters and attendees at an opening ceremony for a new methane power plant, realized it was Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. There Schendler stood, with two security guards, welcoming them to the mine owned by billionaire Bill Koch.

Schendler’s company is a major economic player in the ritzy mountain hamlet billed as the “most expensive town in America.” Its interest in the coal mine stems from a desire to crush the gigantic carbon footprint of the electricity it burns each year while keeping its four ski mountains, three hotels and 17 restaurants lit and running. To do that, it has put $5.5 million into a $6 million power plant based at the mine. The plant will capture and convert methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2, into electricity.

Mines have to vent the gas for safety reasons, so before the plant’s construction, all the methane the Elk Creek mine released went straight into the atmosphere. Once fully up and running though, which should be by the end of the year, the three-megawatt plant will turn a significant portion of that methane -- an annual equivalent to the emissions of 13,000 cars -- into electricity.

“We’ve looked around for probably ten years for a big-scale clean energy project. We’ve looked at it all. We’ve done a lot of it -- we’ve done hydro, we’ve done solar. These just weren’t big enough,” Schendler told me over the phone the day before I headed to the mine for the plant’s unveiling. “This is something that makes business sense, but has vast carbon benefits and actually makes a ton of power.”

Schendler’s company owns the plant along with Vessels Coal Gas, whose owner Tom Vessels engineered the project. Holy Cross Energy, a utility based in Glenwood, Colo., that provides 50,000 customers in Western Colorado with electricity, will buy the three megawatts of power the plant generates and sell it to its customers. Unlike Aspen Skiing Company, Oxbow has little interest in mitigating climate change. The mine’s president, Jim Cooper, who has been in the coal industry for 40 years, says he doesn’t believe in man-made climate change but sees the project, which currently has little financial reward for the mining company, as a smart way to use a previously wasted resource.

“Oxbow did not do this for a return,” says Cooper.

Vessels would not divulge the specifics of the agreement with Oxbow but said that over time if business goes “swimmingly well” the mine will reap some financial benefits from having the plant at its site.

When it comes to partnering with coal miners who aren’t on the same page about climate change, Schendler has no qualms. “I’m convinced that if we’re going to solve [climate change] we’re going to have think differently, fracture old alliances, and create new and uncomfortable ones,” he says. “The bottom line is that Oxbow owns a lot of coal mines and they’re venting methane. We may not agree politically with them, but we agree that we need to deal with this methane.”

Up at the plant, a five-minute drive up the road in an old yellow school bus usually used to ferry mine workers to and from shifts, Tom Vessels hit the start button on a touch screen housed inside a metal container, kicking the first of three one megawatt generators into gear. By the end of the year the other two generators will be online, producing enough electricity to power about 2,000 homes.

The mine releases enough methane to produce 5 to 6 times that amount of power, though. To develop that resource would require buy in from a utility company, the majority of which aren’t willing to pay more for coal-methane power because it doesn’t qualify as a renewable energy source, says Vessels. The lack of immediate remuneration likely explains why other mines in the area have not taken the step to capture the methane they vent; the two other coal mines in the North Fork Valley still release millions of cubic feet of methane each day.

Earlier this year, environmentalists helped kill a bipartisan bill that would have included coal-mine methane in Colorado’s renewable energy standard and provided incentives for utilities to buy it (the legislation requires utilities to source 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020). However, coal-methane power will get another shot at joining the renewable portfolio. Senator Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass), who co-sponsored the bill, plans to introduce another bill that would allow the energy source to qualify as a renewable resource. “There is a lot of methane escaping into the atmosphere and we could capture that as clean energy,” she says.

Pictures courtesy Brendon Bosworth, a High Country News intern.

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