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Resort in a Coal Mine

mountain-winter-2013-aspen-coal-mineAspen gets down and dirty in its effort to address climate change.

By Paul Tolmé | Photograph by Karl Wolfgang

No mountain resort has been more active in addressing climate change than Aspen Skiing Company, which generates its own solar and hydropower, heats buildings with geothermal energy, and employs state-of-the-art lighting and efficiency technologies across its four resorts. So it was startling to hear the news last summer that the greenest of ski resorts was considering investing in a coal mine. Had the recession forced the SkiCo to lay down with odd bedfellows? Not so much: Aspen plans to invest $6 million to create the nation’s largest coal mine methane power plant, which would burn gas already emitted by the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset, Colorado. The methane is a by-product of the mining, but currently it’s collected in a pipe and just vented into the atmosphere. “If you lit it on fire you could create the world’s largest blowtorch,” says Auden Schendler, Aspen’s environmental director.

Abandoned and operating coal mines emit large amounts of methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gasses. But whereas coal mine methane plants are common in Europe, where greenhouse gasses are regulated, they’re rare in the United States. Here, mines simply vent or flare gas to protect workers from explosions. The practice wastes a valuable, clean burning fossil fuel (the gas) and has a negative impact on the climate. But because harvesting methane represents a small revenue source compared to lucrative coal, there’s been little financial incentive. The SkiCo’s move, though, might help to change that dynamic. Projected to open in 2012, the plant would generate 25 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually—equal to the yearly energy use of the company’s four ski areas.

The trend of resorts taking charge of their own energy needs has been catching on. Like Aspen, Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia also prefers to generate its own clean energy rather than outsource production. Built in 2008, Whistler’s Fitzsimmons Creek micro-hydro power plant channels snowmelt through pipes to a turbine, creating electricity equivalent to the resort’s annual on-mountain usage.

Without the initiative of resorts, though, other mountain communities have had less success. Neighbors of a proposed wood biomass plant near Lake Tahoe are fighting its construction. The plant would generate electricity by burning trees cut for wildfire mitigation. It would sound like a marginally eco-minded initiative; except for the fact the Forest Service now burns the slash in open piles. A biomass plant would create local power, reduce the risk of wildfires, and cut air pollution. Vocal opponents, however, say it doesn’t belong near homes. If a major player like a ski resort backed it though, who knows?

“Our goal is a zero operating footprint,” says Arthur De Jong, Whistler’s environmental manager who hopes to build more micro-hydro plants “When I say that, people look at me like I’m a middle-aged hairless hippie who won’t let go of his bong.”

From the Winter 2012 issue.

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