Instead of a coal mine, this Alberta mountain could now become a “green energy complex”

An Australian mining company that had proposed a large surface coal mine in southwestern Alberta now says it might instead want to build a “renewable energy complex” on the site.

Montem Resources originally planned to develop a surface coal mine on Tent Mountain, just southwest of Crowsnest Pass, and was in the process of seeking regulatory approvals for the project.

But after the federal and provincial governments rejected a nearby mining proposal – Riversdale Resources’ Grassy Mountain project – Montem rethought its plans for Tent Mountain.

The company has now announced a new proposal to use the mountain’s favorable topography for pumped hydraulic energy storage, powered by nearby wind turbines, as well as a green hydrogen production facility.

Pumping hydraulic energy storage involves moving water upward and storing it, essentially creating a large battery. When energy is needed, water is released downstream and spins turbines to generate electricity.

Green hydrogen is produced by using electricity to separate water molecules into their components: oxygen and hydrogen. Among the different modes of hydrogen production, it is the one that emits the least greenhouse gases.

‘Unique opportunity’

Montem CEO Peter Doyle said the size and shape of Tent Mountain, combined with existing reservoirs from a previous coal mining project at the site, creates an “absolutely unique opportunity” for an installation of pumped hydroelectricity.

The site already has two key components for such a project: a high altitude reservoir and a low altitude reservoir, which were built as part of a previous mining project decades ago.

The difference in height between these two reservoirs is about 300 meters, which also lends itself well to the production of electricity.

“The amount of electricity you get from a hydroelectric site is a function of the flow of the water and what we call the ‘height of fall’, which is the difference in altitude,” he said. said Blake Shaffer, an economist at the University of Calgary who specializes in electricity markets.

And the Tent Mountain site, Shaffer said, “has this huge head.”

Montem estimates that releasing water from the upper reservoir would provide 320 MW of electricity for eight continuous hours, “which is the equivalent of powering about 200,000 homes overnight.”

Once the water is discharged into the lower reservoir, the company plans to use energy from nearby wind turbines to pump it upstream.

Doyle said Montem could build its own wind turbines or purchase relatively inexpensive electricity from the large bank of existing wind turbines in southwestern Alberta.

Potential hydrogen

The other aspect of the plan is a hydrogen production facility, which would use electricity to split water molecules and collect the resulting hydrogen.

Doyle said Tent Mountain is located near existing roads, railways and pipelines, which provide the ability to transport hydrogen to buyers.

An infographic explaining how the proposed “green energy project” for Tent Mountain would work. (Montem Resources)

Hydrogen as a fuel is attracting growing interest in global efforts to combat climate change. Unlike fossil fuels, the combustion of hydrogen does not release carbon dioxide, only water vapor.

Hydrogen can also be used to produce steel and is seen as a potential alternative metallurgical coal, although Shaffer says this use of hydrogen is still in its infancy.

Montem’s original plan was to mine Tent Mountain for metallurgical coal, largely for export.

Looking at the company’s new plan, Shaffer said it was not clear to him that a hydrogen production facility at Tent Mountain would be as viable as the more immediate potential of pumped hydro storage. .

Blake Shaffer is an economist at the University of Calgary who specializes in electricity markets. (Blake Shaffer)

Such a project could take cheap electricity from Alberta’s growing solar and wind capacity, he said, and then sell electricity to the grid when the sun is not shining and the wind is blowing. breath.

“It’s a great location for that in that regard,” Shaffer said.

Doyle said the three aspects of the project – wind power, pumped water storage and hydrogen production – could all work together, but the project could also work without the hydrogen installation and simply provide electricity. on-demand power to the Alberta power grid.

“This province definitely needs big batteries,” Doyle said.

He said the next step for the company is to complete a detailed feasibility study.

Montem is requesting federal funding of $ 5 million under the Canadian Clean Fuels Program to help fund the next phase of the project.

The Future of Coal in Alberta

Doyle said the rejection of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project had “significantly” affected Montem’s thinking about the Tent Mountain Project.

“I would say we were shocked by this decision,” he said. “It forced us as a company to look at our asset base and see what else we could do with it.”

Riversdale Resources had spent years seeking approval for the Grassy Mountain project, but a federal-provincial review panel ruled in June that the project was “not in the public interest” because of the potential for environmental damage. .

Riversdale is appealing the decision, as are leaders of neighboring First Nations who support the project.

A barrier blocks public access to the proposed Grassy Mountain mining project site just north of Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass area of ​​southwestern Alberta. (Evelyne Asselin / CBC)

Doyle said Montem initially considered using the Tent Mountain site for pumped hydraulic storage after mining it for coal, once the mine reached the end of its life.

But given the Grassy Mountain decision and the Government of Alberta’s ongoing review of its broader coal policy, Montem decided to advance the idea of ​​the “green energy complex” earlier. .

“The regulatory environment certainly motivated our decision,” he said.

Montem hasn’t completely given up on the idea of ​​mining coal from Tent Mountain, he said, but if the company goes ahead with the green power complex first, it’s unlikely. that she is also trying to develop a coal mine on the site.

Montem also has additional coal leases in a separate area north of Tent Mountain, and the company says it “remains committed to defining and further developing” a coal project in that area in the future.

Environmental concerns persist

The Society for Nature and Parks of Canada (SNAP), which opposed the development of new coal mines in southern Alberta, said Montem’s new proposal would be better than a mine on Tent Mountain, but could involve certain environmental risks.

Katie Morrison, the organization’s conservation director for southern Alberta, also worries the company’s announcement is “a hijacking of the key coal issue.”

“While planning for the future is important, in order to be confident in this plan or the company’s commitment to renewable energy, Montem needs to make it clear that it is abandoning coal mine plans on Tent Mountain.” , she said.

“The vast majority of Albertans have made it clear that they do not want new coal mines on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. We hope the government will hear this loud and clear as the new coal policy is developed.

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