Coal mine is key to utility’s ‘green’ goals
A coal mine near Somerset could play an unlikely role in helping an energy cooperative in the Roaring Fork Valley reach its goal of providing 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2015.
Holy Cross Energy has signed a contract to buy power from a plant that Vessels Coal Gas Inc. will build to produce power using methane released from the Elk Creek Mine, according to Del Worley, CEO of Holy Cross. If all goes as planned, the plant will be operating by late summer or early fall, he said.
Vessels Coal Gas will capture methane that must be released for worker safety from a coal mine owned by William Koch’s Oxbow Carbon, according to Randy Udall, an energy expert and consultant for Holy Cross. The methane will be run through what is essentially a large internal-combustion engine to drive pistons that turn a generator and produce power. The 3-megawatt project will produce power for the mine and supply additional power to the Holy Cross grid.
Udall said the project is extraordinarily green because it prevents the release of methane into the atmosphere.
“It’s actually the greenest thing they’ve done,” he said.
Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.
“Basically methane is carbon on steroids,” Udall said. It affects air quality, contributes to global warming and creates ozone, another powerful greenhouse gas.
“It’s a really bad actor,” he said.
Producing power from methane offsets a substantially greater amount of greenhouse gases than production of the same amount of power from wind or solar.
“Holy Cross’ methane project, with a capital cost of $5 million, will offer as much climate benefit as $500 million worth of solar,” Udall said. “In other words, it will displace nearly as much carbon as all the solar we have installed statewide to date.”
Worley said Holy Cross officials saw tremendous climate benefits from the project.
“It clearly seemed to us to be a good thing,” he said.
The North Fork Valley plant would be “one of the first” in the country, Udall said. East of the Mississippi River, coal mines are often located near pipelines. The methane is “cleaned up” and piped out for industrial use, he said.
In the western U.S., there isn’t the potential to build a power plant that operates on methane expelled from coal mines. Not all methane in coal mines is equal. Some mines produce methane that poses a greater danger and must be vented from the mine. Current law allows that to simply be released in the atmosphere.
Oxbow would have little to do with the project other than allowing Vessel to tap its methane for a fee, Udall said. Koch has connections to Aspen. He converted the former Elk Mountain Lodge in Castle Creek Valley into a residence. He is also a leader in the fight to prevent the city of Aspen from developing a hydro electric plant that would use water from Castle and Maroon Creeks.
Holy Cross has signed a second contract recently to fatten its portfolio of renewable energy. It has a deal to buy power produced by a biomass plant proposed in Gypsum by Eagle Valley Clean Energy LLC. The 10 megawatt plant would burn dead trees, construction material and other wood supplies to boil water and produce steam, which spins turbines that produce electricity.
The plant would create a good use for the beetle-kill trees prevalent in the Interstate 70 corridor, Worley said. It would also create up to 40 jobs at the plant while producing reliable, renewable energy, he said. The biomass plant could run 90-some percent of the time and wouldn’t be subject to weather conditions, like wind and solar farms.
The Eagle Valley Enterprise, a sister publication to The Aspen Times, reported March 14 that an annexation, zoning and other conditions needed for the biomass plant were approved by the Gypsum Town Council. The biomass plant is proposed on a site adjacent to American Gypsum, which is visible from Interstate 70.
The plant would burn an estimated 70,000 tons of wood chips per year, the Eagle Valley Enterprise reported.
Worley said Holy Cross has an agreement to buy electricity from the plant for 20 years. The plant could be completed and supplying power sometime in 2014, he said.
The biomass plant could supply power for up to 6,500 homes in the Holy Cross service area, which includes much of the Roaring Fork Valley and parts of the I-70 corridor from Vail to western Garfield County. Worley said the national average for energy use is about 8,000 kilowatts per year. In Holy Cross territory, average consumption is closer to 12,000 kilowatts per year, he said.
If built, the biomass plant would provide about 6 percent of Holy Cross’ power while the methane plant would provide about 2 percent. That would boost Holy Cross’ total renewable energy portfolio to 23 percent, Worley said.
That would exceed Holy Cross’ internal goal to get 20 percent of its portfolio from renewable sources by 2015. If one or both of the projects falls through, Holy Cross will find alternatives.
“I think there’s a variety of ways to get there,” Worley said.
Udall praised the company’s efforts. “I think it’s one of the most progressive rural utilities in the country,” he said.
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