Aspen Skiing Co.’s coal mine methane-capture plant proves to be a lot more than hot air

Skico on track to recoup $5.3 million investment, provide model for climate progress

Workers and onlookers check out a plant that captures methane and converts it to electricity at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset. Aspen Skiing Co. provided most of the capital for the project.
Jeremy Swanson/courtesy photo

Aspen Skiing Co. says its plant that converts methane from a coal mine into electricity has proven to be an environmental and economic success since it opened in November 2012.

Skico this week released the first progress report on the plant at the Elk Creek Mine at Somerset, which is in Gunnison County on the west side of McClure Pass. The company invested $5.34 million on the clean-energy technology with an expectation of recouping the funds within 10 to 15 years. The report said Skico has only $750,000 outstanding on its initial investment after the eight full years the facility has operated.

The project generates between $100,000 to $150,000 in revenue per month from electricity and carbon credit sales to Holy Cross Energy, the report said.

The financial success is critical to getting the project replicated. Skico released the report, in part, to help stoke interest in other such efforts as part of the effort to reduce global warming. It’s an example of how a company can make a difference in solving the climate crisis, Skico officials said. The plant captures methane and converts it into electricity.

“Aspen Skiing Company’s methane project passes two tests of meaningful climate action,” the progress report said in its conclusion. “First, it’s at a large, not a token, scale. And second, it is a high profile, replicable model for others. While it is not a comprehensive market or policy solution, it illuminates a path in that direction and is an example of what one company can do to make a difference.”

Along with financial success, the plant has made significant strides in clean-energy production and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The plant produces 3 megawatts of baseload power by capturing methane and combusting it to produce electricity. The plant produces more than the energy-intensive ski company consumes at its four ski areas as well as hotels and restaurants. The electricity generated by the plant goes into the Holy Creek Energy grid rather than directly to Skico.

The report said the plant has prevented emissions of 250 billion cubic feet of methane annually into the atmosphere. That is equivalent to removing 517,000 passenger vehicles from roadways for one year.

An independent, third-party expert on global warming issues agreed that the plant provides a great model worthy of replicating. However, researcher Rick Heede of Old Snowmass told The Aspen Times that Skico’s project is just a drop in the bucket.

There are 48,528 abandoned coal mines in the United States still dumping methane into the atmosphere.

“The Aspen Skiing Company had the vision and the fortitude to invest serious money into what has proven to be a viable, effective and world-class way to utilize a squandered and harmful resource and turn it into a profitable way to reduce the company’s, and Holy Cross’s, climate impact,” Heede said in an email. “Companies, individuals and builders can glean useful lessons from nature, where nothing goes to waste.”

The Somerset project started with a bang, quite literally. The mine caught fire and blew up less than a year after the methane-capture plant was constructed.

“It delayed the project but didn’t stop it,” said Auden Schendler, Skico’s senior vice president for sustainability and community engagement.

Methane is vented from coal mines for the safety of workers. The late Randy Udall, an energy expert from Carbondale, labeled methane “carbon on steroids” because it contributes to global warming directly and creates ozone, another greenhouse gas.

Udall worked with energy entrepreneur Tom Vessels and his firm, Vessels Coal Gas Inc., to envision a project that converts methane from a coal mine to electricity. Holy Cross Energy signed on to buy the power. Oxbow Carbon, owned by Bill Koch, agreed to provide access to methane at its Elk Creek Mine. Skico provided the bulk of the capital for the $6 million project.

The methane plant continued to operate after the mine closed in 2014. An abandoned mine still produces methane gas.

Schendler told The Aspen Times that despite the success of the methane plant, it could be even more efficient in years to come.

“The project is still cooking, but one new challenge is that we’re experiencing air leakage into the mine and methane out,” he said. “That’s dropping the concentration of burnable gas, so the project isn’t running optimally.”

The holes need to be plugged. However, current laws prioritize reclamation over action to prevent methane leakage.

“We are currently working with the state to try to fix this,” Schendler said. “The mine is leaking a million vehicles worth of methane emissions a day until we can patch it.”

In other ways, the project is doing as intended — serving as a model. The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act would direct the Bureau of Land Management to “develop a program to facilitate the sale and delivery of methane from active, inactive and abandoned coal mines” in several areas, including the North Fork Valley where the Elk Creek Mine is located, the progress report noted.

Skico officials are proud of being a partner in the groundbreaking project.

“We recognize global warming as an existential threat to our business,” Matt Jones, Skico’s chief financial officer, said in a prepared statement. “We can’t stand by and wait for others to solve this crisis. We’re trying to do what we can to make a difference.”

(Editor’s note: This article was corrected to show the number of abandoned coal mines in the United States rather than Colorado.)