Historic Clean-Energy Project Targets Coal Mine Methane
KREX News Room
SOMERSET, Colo. - In the town of Somerset, you'll find a few dozen homes, a local post office and a coal mine that could change the way residents think of energy production and consumption in the United States.
Methane. More than 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent of the green house gas are produced by coal mining around the world every year (epa.gov).
"Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas," said Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. "It's about 23 times more potent than CO2 in warming the earth."
The winter tourism powerhouse, along with Holy Cross Energy, Oxbow Mining, Vessels Coal Gas and Gunnison Energy are part of a project to turn the potent gas into electricity on a large scale.
"We're actually achieving progress on really pressing issues of our time, which are climate and energy," added Schendler.
It's an undertaking 10 years and miles of research in the making. Vessels sought a mine to join the venture for several years before Jim Cooper at Oxbow signed on.
"The same kind of project exists in Europe and China, but it hasn't been done in the U.S. for a range of different reasons," said Schendler.
But what interest does a skiing company have in an energy project?
"Number one, it's a business decision," explained Schendler. "We're investing our money at 12 percent. Who wouldn't want to do that? And two, we have had a long-term environmental commitment and one of the big glaring issues is you use a ton of energy".
Here's how it works: the pipe that pumps the methane gas out of the mine is attached to another pipe that feeds it to a generator. That engine harvests the energy, which is transferred to the electrical grid for consumption.
The three-megawatt project is expected to generate 24 million kilowatt hours of electricity. That's enough to power about 2,000 homes for a full year, or the entire operations of Aspen Skiing Company's four mountains, three hotels, 17 restaurants and golf course.
But the real light bulb moment here is destroying methane from the earth's atmosphere. Doing so eliminates three-times the carbon pollution created by the resort each year, for example.
Overall, about 96,465 U.S. tons of carbon dioxide equivalent would be wiped out. That's like taking 13,151 cars off the road.
Schendler estimates that kind of theoretical climate protection would cost $400 million in solar panels, compared to this project's $6 million price tag; the returns of which, wouldn't just be seen by its investors.
"What if you developed these kinds of projects all over coal country?" asked Schendler. "You need someone to install it, you need someone to run it, you need someone to plan it."
The town of Somerset alone is estimated to receive $2 million in economic benefits, including taxes, royalties and payroll.
Furthermore, in a political climate plagued with propaganda, this clean-energy undertaking has bipartisan support.
"To take something that's been wasted in this country and turn it into something positive is ... it's a wonderful step in the right direction," said Gretchen Nicholoff, former president and current board member of Western Colorado Congress, an environmental group. Nicholoff also lives near Somerset.
"There are closed mines all over the United States that are leaking methane and you could do this everywhere," explained Schendler.
Oxbow's Elk Creek Mine will produce methane for at least eight years while open and is estimated to provide an additional decade of the gas after the mine is closed.
Schendler says the same can be duplicated in 1,325 mines across the nation.
"It's a really interesting thing," reflected Nicholoff. "This tiny little part of Western Colorado is sort of a leader in thinking strategically about these problems."
Other similar projects have been attempted on a smaller scale, but have yet to be commercialized.
"It's really fun to get something done that's meaningful," added Schendler. "And actually, in a human life, you don't get that, that often."
Officials say over the next decade, as these projects become more prevalent, as much as 75 megawatts of energy could be produced statewide.
Currently, the Elk Creek Mine vents enough methane to generate almost 20 megawatts of power. Until additional power plant capacity is installed, the excess is burned off in enclosed thermal oxidizers.