Coal Mine Converts Waste Methane into Electricity

Nov 13, 2012

The North Fork Valley is now home to a new form of "green" electricity. On Friday, Oxbow’s Elk Creek mine officially launched a 3 megawatt project generating electricity from methane gas. KVNF’s Ariana Brocious reports that the project is the culmination of years of work from an unlikely alliance: involving the mine, a gas company, electric co-ops and the uber environmentally-conscious Aspen Skiing Company.

Tom Vessels at the Elk Creek Mine.
Credit Brendon Bosworth

More than 100 people turned out for the official ribbon cutting ceremony at the Elk Creek mine near Somerset. The diverse crowd—which included state and local government, coal miners, environmentalists and ski fanatics—was reflective of the different partners responsible for getting the project off the ground.

Up near the mine entrance, a fan ventilates the mine to keep methane concentrations low. Methane is released during the mining process, and has to be vented for the safety of the miners—too much can cause explosions. And until now, Oxbow, like almost every other coal mine in the country, has been releasing that methane into the atmosphere. That’s controversial because methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

Auden Schendler is the Vice President of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, which financed most of the $6 million project.

Methane is the natural gas you use in your stove and furnace. So why waste it? Capture it. And that’s all we’re doing, we’re burning it in a turbine, think of a diesel generator that runs on methane. And that makes electricity, it goes into the grid and we sell that power.

And Aspen SkiCo is buying all of that power—about 24 million kilowatt hours annually. That amounts to the resort’s entire energy needs for the year, supplying four mountains, 17 restaurants, and three hotels. Schendler says as an environmentally responsible ski resort, they’re excited to get “green” energy from a local source.

Tom Vessels’s company has been working on coal mine methane projects for years. He says it’s been hard to get coal mines interested, because the methane revenue is tiny compared to coal, and mines are reluctant to do anything that will affect their efficiency or safety.

That’s why it’s important to have large-scale pilot project like this, to show yes it can work, here’s what it looks like.

But in this case, profit wasn’t what motivated the mine, says Brad Robinson, president of Gunnison Energy Corporation.

It was all to save a wasted resource and to try to do something for the environment.

GEC owns the gas rights at Oxbow. Schendler of Aspen SkiCo says the vast differences in the partners' political persuasions, ideologies, and industries didn’t stop them from working together.

We all came to realize that one thing we cared about was not wasting resources. Now, we care about the greenhouse impacts, but they don’t necessarily. But we said here’s our common ground, and this is an opportunity to do something good for our communities, do something groundbreaking together.

And Robinson of GEC agrees.

I want this project to be a model and an example that we can duplicate.

That’s the next step. Even though Tom Vessels estimates there is up to 20 megawatts of methane energy available at the Elk Creek mine, the project is currently limited to 3 megawatts because that’s all Holy Cross Energy—the electric co-op that provides energy to Aspen SkiCo-- can purchase. Other local co-ops are also interested in buying the power, but also limited by their purchase contracts. Vessels says that when he tries to market the electricity to utility companies, it often comes down to one question:

Are you renewable? No. Then they’ve got no incentive.

But these companies and state legislators are working to change that. Last year, state senator Gail Schwartz introduced a bill to make captured coal mine methane eligible for the state’s renewable energy portfolio. Several environmental groups opposed the measure, saying it would take energy credits away from wind and solar. The measure ultimately failed.  

The three North Fork mines together vent enough methane to heat city of Grand Junction.

That’s Steve Wolcott, coal committee chair at Delta County’s NFRIA-WSERC Conservation Center. His group supported the legislation last year, and has been encouraging the area’s coal mines to do something with their waste methane for years.

If there is such a thing as clean coal, it’s that produced here in valley, and by capturing waste methane and using it, it becomes even cleaner. We believe that combination makes this an energy source even cleaner than natural gas.

Back at the mine surface, the project leaders gather around a screen. One push of a button and – the methane is now being turned into electricity. But despite the excitement of the day, further financial incentives will be needed to expand the project at Oxbow, and to make this kind of energy viable at other coal mines around the country.