Aspen to build energy plant

It takes a lot of energy to run the show in Aspen, Colo., where Winter X Games is held. Joshua Duplechian/ESPN

Aspen Skiing Co. has always been a leader in sustainability within the ski industry, but its recent $5.5 million investment in a clean energy power plant has put the company at the forefront of the battle against climate change.

After a decade of searching for the right project, Aspen Skiing Co. signed a contract last week with partners Vessels Coal Gas Inc. and Gunnison Energy to build a multi-million infrastructure that will burn methane to produce power. "This is by far the biggest clean energy project we've ever facilitated by many orders of magnitude," said Aspen Skiing Co.'s VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler.

It's also currently the largest project of its kind in the U.S. -- so big, in fact, that it won the Golden Eagle Award for environmental excellence at May's National Ski Areas Association conference.

"We did this because we want to be in business forever, and until all of us take responsibility for dealing with our greenhouse gas emissions, we are not going to solve the climate problem," said Aspen Skiing Co. CEO and President Mike Kaplan. "Yes, it's about powder skiing for current and future generations, X Games for the fans and athletes, but more importantly, it's about protecting our landscapes, our drinking water, and our viability as a healthy society."

Coal mines naturally produce methane, which, due to its toxic properties, must be vented into the atmosphere for worker safety. Rather than let this harmful greenhouse gas (which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide) disproportionately warm the planet, Ski Co. will burn methane in a large internal-combustion engine that spins a generator to make electricity.

The power plant will produce 25 million kilowatt hours annually, which is roughly the amount of energy the company's four mountains, three hotels, and 18 restaurants use in a year. Aspen Skiing Co., however, won't actually get the power directly; they're selling it to Holy Cross Energy, who owns the utility grid into which the power will flow.

"There's nothing not to like about it," said Schendler. "It's a modern climate solution that's bipartisan, has an economic benefit, and creates jobs. This is how big we have to start thinking."

Ski Co. has already started building the infrastructure for the plant in Somerset, Colo., where they will be utilizing the methane from Gunnison Energy's Elk Creek Mine. The first generator will be running by September, and the remaining two should be working by the start of ski season. The plant will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and should "pencil out financially in 6 years, with a 12 percent annual revenue after that," said Schendler.

"We're trying to set the green example for businesses everywhere," Schendler said. "People have to understand the vast scale of this problem and respond at that scale."