SOMERSET — For a ski company that heralds powder days, Aspen Skiing Co. on Friday rallied atop a coal mine to applaud a power day. With a tap of a finger on a glass screen, a rumbling generator, fueled by methane vented from the Oxbow Corp.'s Elk Creek Mine, began producing electricity.
It is the nation's first such project on a large scale, converting waste methane into 24 million kilowatt hours of power, enough to fuel all of Aspen Skiing's four ski areas, 13 restaurants and three hotels.
The ski company spent $5.4 million to develop the plant. Chief executive Mike Kaplan described it as "the most exciting, innovative, optimistic, coolest project I've ever been associated with."
The project unites unlikely partners: one of the world's biggest coal companies and the ski industry's greenest, most environmentally focused resort owner.
Coal mine operators use ventilation systems to clear methane, ensuring worker safety. The gas is blown into the air, contributing to carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere. The Elk Creek project, over a year, eliminates 96,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, roughly what's generated by 13,151 cars.
The system cleans and compresses the methane before running it through three generators and feeding on-site substations connected to the Delta-Montrose Electric Association grid. Eventually the power reaches the network of Holy Cross Energy, which is the first rural electrical utility to buy coal mine methane-generated electricity.
Tom Vessels built the system. The owner of Denver-based Vessels Coal Gas knocked on a dozen major mine-owner doors before Oxbow's 340-employee Elk Creek Mine agreed.
"The biggest problem is that methane is a small sideline, a byproduct. It's not their core business," Vessels said.
The project is designed to inspire other mines to follow suit. Aspen Skiing — which is selling the electricity to Holy Cross — is in early talks with an Illinois coal mine to develop a similar facility.
It takes some convincing, swaying a coal mine to let environmentalists onto their mines to capture and develop what is considered dangerous waste. Especially when methane revenue pales compared to coal money.
"In this case, return on investment isn't what motivated the mine," said Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing's environmental leader. "They are resource guys and they don't want to waste a resource. That is kind of a cool thing because it's common ground."
Elk Creek only harvests a portion of the methane from the mine. Randy Udall, an energy consultant, said an additional $1 million worth of methane vents from the mine each month.
"I hope this is just the beginning," said Udall, who worked for several years to develop the Elk Creek methane harvesting system. "Sometimes getting that first project done takes a decade or more, but once the first one is in the ground, that's when things really start rocking and rolling."