Students in the Business School program get up-close look at plant that converts methane into electricity

University Communications

GEM students from CU Denver tour energy conversion plant in Somerset, Colo.

SOMERSET, Colo. – A group of eight Global Energy Management Program students recently explored the $6 million plant here that turns methane emitted from the coal mine into electricity.

Mine operator Oxbow Mining LLC worked with Aspen Ski Company, Vessels Coal Gas, Gunnison Energy, and Holy Cross Energy to build the 3-megawatt plant. The plant produces enough electricity to meet the needs of 2,000 homes.

Brad Barkey, a residential project manager at SolarCity and a member of the GEM Program’s Cohort IIX, enjoyed meeting with friendly and highly-professional mine operators. Tom Vessels, chief executive officer of Vessels Coal Gas and one of the major architects behind this project, and Julian Huzyk, chief operating officer at Vessels Coal Gas, Inc., gave detailed PowerPoint presentations. Vessels believes Colorado’s mine methane resource could generate as much as 150 MW of electricity.

“They seemed really upbeat about the coal industry, yet candid about challenges of their operation,” Barkey said. “They provided us with a presentation and were generous with information, answering questions.”

The three-megawatt power plant at Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine generates electricity by capturing and combusting waste methane gas emitted from the mine. Of the total active underground coal mines in the United States, Elk Creek is the second to generate electricity from waste methane.

When touring the site, GEM students donned protective hardhats, safety glasses and fluorescent vests and ear plugs. They rode a retired school bus about one-third mile up to the mine portal where the mine air vent and methane capturing and electrical generation equipment were.

“I found the equipment interesting, and the prospect for broader adoption of this technology intriguing,” Barkey said. “It was good to see the equipment firsthand, and to learn more about what was involved in making the whole project happen. It was also good to see where the practical and technical limitations were, as well.”

Barkey learned that there are a lot of impurities and moisture in the methane from the mine. The presentations also reminded him that an immense amount of methane currently enters the atmosphere worldwide. “It is intriguing to consider whether more of it could be captured and used to produce energy, where now it becomes a potent greenhouse gas,” Barkey said.

This project required a large amount of public and private subsidy. Elk Creek Mine chose not use the electricity generated by the plant because it didn’t want to alter its long-term contract with the local electric utility. “I learned that with the current economics (i.e. cheap electricity), this methane generation has limited feasibility with its current price tag. Also, due to the rugged terrain of the area, it would also not be feasible to pipe methane from other mines a few miles up the road,” Barkey added.

Femi Bamgbose, senior engineering tech at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a member of GEM’s Cohort IX, also took part in the “impressive” tour. He admired the high-country vistas while traveling to the small town of Somerset and was fascinated by the methane conversion technology of the power plant.

“The only other power plant I have visited and interned at was a hydro-power plant, and that was nothing close to this experience,” he said. “The conversion of methane gas to electricity was something baffling. The first time I ever heard about it was at GEM, and it was nice to have the opportunity to drive there to see firsthand for myself.”

Bamgbose is surprised that this technology has not been promoted in the coal industry.

“With the talk about capturing emissions and making coal cleaner, this technology should be given better attention, promoted in all the coal mines,” he said. “The conversion of methane gas to electricity in such a small space is amazing to me. I left this tour with the thoughts of the men behind this innovation and their resilience and determination to give this a wider reach and awareness.”

(Photo: A group of Global Energy Management students recently toured a $6 million plant in Somerset, Colo., that turns methane emitted from the coal mine into electricity.)


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