Geologist: Burning coal seam near Glenwood can generate power
October 20, 2011
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A Golden-based geologist is hoping to build a pilot plant atop the South Canyon coal seam near Glenwood Springs that he says will convert the heat of a century-old coal seam fire into electricity.
Lindsey Maness Jr., CEO of In-Situ Coal Energy Corp., believes the process involved will speed up the rate at which the fire is consuming the coal seam, causing it to burn out earlier than it would on its own.
Maness also said certain chemicals and basic elements released by the coal fire, including coal oil, can be collected and sold at a profit.
“One man’s problem is another man’s opportunity,” reads the company’s philosophy on a powerpoint presentation about Maness’ proposal.
“Waste Not, Want Not,” is the company’s motto, a phrase that also happens to be the title of a paper Maness sent to the Post Independent to further outline his proposal.
“This will be a self-sustaining, non-polluting operation, in today’s jargon, a sustainable green business,” Maness wrote. “When we are finished, when all that can burn has been burned, the fires will go out. That will be a significant benefit to the city and to the surrounding region.”
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Maness has made presentations Glenwood Springs and Garfield County officials, and is scheduled to make another to the Garfield County commissioners in early November.
In an email, Garfield County Planning Director Fred Jarman wrote, “It is an interesting concept that is focused on harnessing electricity via conductors, at the same time accelerating the burning of the coal underground in the South Canyon to extinguish it more quickly.”
Maness noted that there are more than 1,000 underground coal fires scattered around the U.S., which defy all efforts to extinguish them, several of which are in Garfield County.
In addition to belching out massive amounts of pollution, the South Canyon coal seam fire is known to emit smoke and occasional sparks. In 2002, high winds whipped up sparks from the coal seam that blew up into the Coal Seam Fire, which roared into Glenwood Springs and burned 30 homes.
In 2009, a pair of previously unknown vents popped up in the Harvey Gap area, along a burning coal seam that is part of the same seam of coal that runs through the Grand Hogback from South Canyon to north of Rifle.
Quick action by local firefighters and state mine reclamation officials that year to clear away brush and other combustible material from the vent openings prevented the vents from sparking another huge blaze.
But the possibility of the burning coal seams sparking another fire is one that local officials are very aware of.
“It’s entirely possible,” said acting Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson. “We monitor it, there are state agencies that monitor that thing, in hopes of never reliving through that wildfire.”
Maness said the technology already exists to do what he proposes, but it has not yet been used in this way using public resources.
Basically, Maness said he has come up with a way to use an arrangement of sensors, called “thermal photovoltaics,” and other equipment to harness the heat from the fire.
The technology involves the use of these sensors, as well as turbines, to generate electricity that can then be either used locally or sold into the interstate power grid.
One byproduct, he said, will be coal oil settling out of the seam, which can be sent to a refinery to make fuel.
Another byproduct, warm gases and steam emanating from the plant, can be piped into greenhouses and used to grow plants and vegetables, Maness said.
“This is going to be a significant industry,” he said, “able to employ a lot of people.”
He said he designed a private system that is in use by a customer in Texas, but declined to identify the customer or divulge the location of the plant.
Glenwood Springs City Manager Jeff Hecksel, who has seen Maness’ presentation, remarked, “The technology is really amazing. I thought it was something that definitely was feasible.”
Because the city owns the land in South Canyon, Maness said he has concocted the idea of offering some kind of ownership interest in his company to the city, in return for a lease and permission to use the geothermal resource.
But, said Hecksel, the entire matter is too preliminary to talk about specifics.
“I told Lindsey, if there is any way we can help make this happen, we’re interested,” Hecksel recalled, pointing out that the coal fire is a headache, at the least, for city officials.
“We might be able to make lemonade out of some lemons here,” he concluded.