An Australian mining company that had proposed a major open-pit coal mine in southwestern Alberta now says it may want to build a "renewable energy complex" on the site, instead.
Montem Resources had initially planned to develop an open-pit coal mine on Tent Mountain, just southwest of Crowsnest Pass, and was in the process of seeking regulatory approvals for the project.
The company has now announced a new proposal to use the mountain's favourable topography for pumped-hydro energy storage, powered by nearby wind turbines, along with a green hydrogen production facility.
Pumped-hydro energy storage involves moving water uphill and storing it, essentially creating a big battery. When the energy is needed, the water is released downhill and spins turbines to produce electricity.
Green hydrogen is produced by using electricity to split apart water molecules into their component parts: oxygen and hydrogen. Of the various methods for producing hydrogen, it results in the least greenhouse gas emissions.
Montem CEO Peter Doyle says the size and shape of Tent Mountain, combined with existing reservoirs from an earlier coal-mining project on the site, creates an "absolutely unique opportunity" for a pumped-hydro facility.
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 vertical drop between these two reservoirs is about 300 metres, which also lends itself well to power generation.
"How much power you get from a hydroelectric site is a function of the flow rate of the water and what we call the 'head,' which is the elevation difference," said Blake Shaffer, an economist with the University of Calgary who specializes in electricity markets.
And the Tent Mountain site, Shaffer said, "has this tremendous 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 approximately 200,000 homes through the night."
After water is released to the lower reservoir, the company's plan is to use power from nearby wind turbines to pump it back uphill.
Doyle said Montem could build its own turbines or purchase relatively inexpensive power from the large bank of existing wind turbines in southwestern Alberta.
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 situated near existing roads, railways and pipelines, which offer the potential to transport the hydrogen to buyers.
There has been growing interest in hydrogen as a fuel, as part of global efforts in combating climate change. Unlike fossil fuels, burning hydrogen releases no carbon dioxide, only water vapour.
Hydrogen can also be used to produce steel and is seen as a potential alternative to metallurgical coal, although Shaffer says this use of hydrogen is still in its infancy.
Montem's initial plan was to mine Tent Mountain for metallurgical coal, largely for export.
Looking at the company's new plan, Shaffer said it's not clear to him that a hydrogen-production facility at Tent Mountain would be as viable as the more immediate potential for pumped-hydro storage.
Such a project could take advantage of low-priced electricity from Alberta's growing solar and wind capacity, he said, and then sell electricity to the grid at times when the sun isn't shining and the wind is blowing.
"It's a great location for it in that regard," Shaffer said.
Doyle said the three aspects of the project — wind power, pumped-hydro storage and hydrogen production — could all work together, but the project could also work without the hydrogen facility and simply contribute on-demand energy to Alberta's electricity grid.
"This province definitely needs big batteries," Doyle said.
He said the next step for the company is completing a detailed feasibility study.
Montem is applying for $5 million in federal funding through Canada's Clean Fuels Program to help fund the next stage of the project.
Future of coal in Alberta
Doyle said the rejection of the Grassy Mountain coal project "significantly" affected Montem's thinking on the Tent Mountain project.
"I would say we were shocked by that decision," he said. "It forced us, as a company, to look at our asset base and to see what else could be done from it."
Riversdale Resources had spent years seeking approvals for the Grassy Mountain project, but a joint federal-provincial review panel decided in June that the project was "not in the public interest" due to risks of environmental damage.
Riversdale is appealing the decision, along with leaders of nearby First Nations who are in favour of the project.
Doyle said Montem had initially considered using the Tent Mountain site for pumped-hydro storage after mining it for coal, once the mine reached the end of its life.
But given the Grassy Mountain decision and the Alberta government's ongoing review of its broader coal policy, Montem decided to push ahead with the idea of the "green energy complex" idea sooner.
"The regulatory environment certainly drove our decision," he said.
Montem hasn't abandoned the idea of mining Tent Mountain for coal altogether, he said, but if the company goes ahead with the green-energy complex first, it's unlikely it would also try to develop a coal mine on the site.
Montem also owns additional coal leases in a separate area north of Tent Mountain, and the company says it "remains committed to further defining and developing" a coal project in that area in the future.
Environmental concerns persist
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which has 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 come with some environmental risks of its own.
Katie Morrison, the organization's conservation director for southern Alberta, also worries the company's announcement may be "a diversion from the key coal issue."
"While planning for the future is important, to have faith in this plan or the company's commitment to renewable energy, Montem needs to clearly state that they are abandoning plans for a coal mine on Tent Mountain," she said.
"The vast majority of Albertans have been clear that they do not want any new coal mines in the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies. We hope the government hears this loud and clear in the development of the new coal policy."