Sunday, November 25, 2012

Aspen's methane energy project: Aspen Skiing Company partners with a coal mine to create clean energy

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By Colin Bane |

This week, Aspen Skiing Company opened a new $5.4 million project to capture methane waste from the Oxbow Elk Creek Mine in nearby Somerset, Colo., and convert it into electricity. The methane waste emitted from the coal mine each month has an estimated value of $1 million; the new project will keep roughly 96,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while generating around three megawatts of power annually. That's roughly equal to the entire amount used annually at the four Aspen/Snowmass resorts. caught up with Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company and a board member at Protect Our Winters, for more on how the project fits into the company's plan to combat climate change.
Can you give us the layman's explanation of how this project works?
There's this sense that sustainability and solving climate change and clean energy is like rocket science and that it's going to take new innovation and new technology. But that's actually wrong. What it's going to take, as step one, is implementing mundane stuff that we already know how to do and we're not even doing. This project is really the most basic of all possible technology: you have a chimney coming out of a coal mine that's venting pure methane. Why not burn it and make power?

Last year, you told The Atlantic that the big idea needed to solve climate change "isn't going to be techy and sexy and innovative." Now we know methane waste from a coal plant was among the things on your mind when you said it.
Yes, but I was speaking more broadly. Again, there's this idea that technology's going to save us, it always has. But in energy you don't see that kind of quick innovation. Tom Friedman says, "If it's sexy, it's not green." A methane project like this is only sexy to a total geek like myself, but it's as green as it gets.

Is this project unprecedented?
Projects like this are happening all over Europe and China, but not in the U.S., beyond a couple one-off projects, because we don't have a carbon regulation. But in my mind this isn't a regulatory issue so much as an opportunity for a new industry in the U.S. and a sideline business for coal mines. You could ignore the sustainability angle here all together: It's a business venture that makes sense on its own merits, and it's going to be very, very profitable for everybody involved.

Aspen also has large-scale solar projects. What did it take to bring sustainability to the top of the priority list at Aspen Skiing Company?
We're weird in that we're a values-based company and sustainability is a part of our business model: We define sustainability as being able to stay in business forever. As a business leader you have to ask yourself, "What would climate change do to your business if it happened?" For us it could be devastating, and that's why we're increasingly politically active on climate. The ski industry has a lot to lose here. We're trying to use Aspen/Snowmass as a beacon to signal progressive paths forward and to influence policy.

You've also been to Capitol Hill, lobbying with Protect Our Winters and athletes like Jeremy Jones, Gretchen Bleiler, and Chris Davenport. If you could enlist more skiers and snowboarders in this battle, what are the key things you'd have them doing to make an impact?
The real goal of Protect Our Winters is to mobilize this whole industry as a force for change for legislation on climate in Washington. I think skiers have an obligation to ask their ski resorts, go straight to the CEO, and ask, "What are you doing on climate? What are you doing on activism?" I'm not just talking about setting up a recycling program and switching the lights out or even generating three megawatts of power from a methane project at a coal mine. Solving climate change is going to take something big, and it isn't something that can wait.
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