Four years ago, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) proposed an idea that made some in America’s top coal-mining state uncomfortable. His plan was to invest $15 million in a test facility at a coal plant, where scientists could explore strategies for capturing carbon dioxide emissions and turning it into an economic product like cement or methanol.
“When I was first proposing the idea to members of the Legislature, they thought addressing CO2 was a knock on coal,” Mead said in an interview yesterday.
Mead ultimately won over the skeptical lawmakers, and yesterday, he helped inaugurate the Wyoming Integrated Test Center at the Dry Fork Station outside Gillette. The facility will host five competing research teams seeking to utilize the plant’s carbon emissions. The best plan will receive $10 million from the XPRIZE Foundation. It will also house Japanese researchers seeking economic uses for carbon emissions.
Perhaps more important is what the facility symbolizes. At a time when Republicans and Democrats are increasingly at odds over climate change, the Integrated Test Center represents the legacy of a governor who has sought to bolster the coal industry by promoting solutions for addressing its carbon emissions.
“Regardless of personal belief on climate change, you see banks, insurance companies, stock markets moving away from coal,” Mead said. “Already, we see many of the countries we want to sell to. They believe in climate change and want a solution. We have to lead in solutions.”
Mead’s stance is a stark contrast from President Trump’s approach. The president has labeled climate change a hoax, and the Department of Energy has proposed cutting research for carbon capture programs (Greenwire, Feb. 15).
In the governor’s estimation, a focus on carbon figures to benefit Wyoming in two ways. First, it creates a research industry that provides an economic benefit in its own right. Second, it helps address concerns of the coal mining firms’ potential customers.
The decision by the Japan Coal Energy Center and Kawasaki Heavy Industries to set up at the Integrated Test Center could help open the Japanese market for coal mining firms in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, the governor said. Cloud Peak Energy, a Wyoming-based coal mining company, recently signed a deal to provide coal to two power plants being built near Japan’s shuttered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility (Greenwire, Jan. 17).
“If we can arrive at a country’s doorstep and say, ’Not only do we have great coal, high BTU, low sulfur, but we’ve solved CO2,’ that’s a powerful message,” Mead said.
About federal funding for coal research, Mead said, “with 100 plus years of coal reserves left, we need long-term strategies and solutions. The next [presidential] administration, when it comes about, may have concerns about coal. This is the time, during an administration that is friendly to coal, to start investing in places like the ITC and places that are finding these solutions.”
There are plenty of doubters, to be sure.
The researchers at the ITC are focused on turning carbon into products that can be used to make cement, methanol and building materials, among other things.
Even if they are successful, the market for carbon products pales next to the world’s carbon emissions, raising questions about its viability as a climate change mitigation strategy (Climatewire, April 10).
But the test center is seen as a potential solution for the country’s rural electric cooperatives, which remain heavily reliant on coal-fired generation.
Utilizing coal plant emissions will not only reduce the liability of future carbon regulation, but also spur new research, said Jim Spiers, senior vice president of business and technology strategies at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).
NRECA played a key role in launching the facility. One of the association’s members, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, operates the Dry Fork Station. Another member, Tri-State Generation & Transmisson, provided some of the funding.
The Integrated Test Center “kind of opens the next frontier for a real viable research platform for energy production with a particular focus on CO2,” Spiers said.
For Mead, the center represents different approach for solving a coal-reliant state’s challenges in a world increasingly concerned about climate change.
“We cannot let Wyoming seek a victim status,” he said. “Where there are challenges from the federal government, where there are challenges from environmentalists, or challenges that hurt our opportunity to produce energy, it’s not enough to say we’re going to fight like hell. We’ve got to find solutions.”