Over the last decade, earlier snowmelts and warmer winters have threatened March skiing in Aspen, Colorado, and the Aspen Skiing Company (ASC) has deployed solutions to address its concerns about climate change while fueling the sector's future energy needs.
Through an innovative partnership with Oxbow's Elk Creek Mine and Holy Cross Energy, a nonprofit rural electric cooperative, ASC is redefining energy production. The two companies approached ASC to propose a methane-to-electricity project, which would generate power by burning methane that was leaking from a local coal mine. In 2012, ASC invested $5.34 million to build the 3-megawatt plant.
Today, the plant has nearly broken even after ASC's initial investment. It's also producing enough electricity annually to offset the resort's energy usage, and it's preventing 250 billion cubic feet of methane from entering the atmosphere annually.
A winter 2021 progress report from ACS, entitled Turning Polluting Methane into Clean Energy, estimated that the plant has contributed to local baseload power. "By converting waste methane into energy, the Elk Creek Mine produces 3 megawatts of baseload power, which delivers 24 million kilowatt hours annually, approximately as much energy as ASC uses annually at all four of its resorts, including hotels and restaurants," the report found.
The project also addresses several "meaningful climate action" objectives that are commonly sought after by environmentalists. It operates on a large scale and could serve as a model for other industries. "While it is not a comprehensive market or policy solution, it illuminates a path in that direction," according to the report.
The Somerset, Colorado plant recovers waste methane from the mine, filters the gas and then converts it into electricity. The electric current is shifted to the regional power grid, operated by Holy Cross Energy. Europe and China are already using similar mine methane recovery processes to generate electricity and reduce emissions.
There are some 1,700 coal-mining permits in Colorado, and many of those mines, even though they are abandoned, are leaking methane. In the United States, methane accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Global Methane Initiative, an international public-private partnership advocating for methane recovery, estimates that there are more than 200 coal mine methane recovery and utilization projects in planning, development or operation around the world.
ASC was already a renewable energy producer, having built its first solar array in 2004, then a micro-hydroelectric plant fueled by snowmelt and finally a 147-kilowatt solar array on the Colorado Rocky Mountain School campus in 2008. Located in the North Fork Valley of Colorado, the coal mine-methane plant started generating electricity in late 2012.
Based on the success of the ACS project, methane recovery is getting some additional attention in the U.S. Congress. A U.S. Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado, would instruct the Bureau of Land Management to foster a pilot program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing or abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley.