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Cleaner technology could give Wyoming coal a bright future

Irina Zhorov

In the midst of a coal slowdown nationwide, not all is dark. Wyoming has been investing millions in research that would make coal a clean, viable resource in the future, despite its dirty reputation. The state has also been making strides towards friendship and collaboration with other big coal stakeholders, like China. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.

Zhorov: The Jim Bridger coal fired power plant is a loud and dusty place. It has 4 units with a combined generating capability of over 2000 megawatts of energy, and burns 8 to 9 million tons of coal per year. The plant is one of the biggest in the region, which of course means it is affected by environmental regulations in a big way.

Arambel: For regional haze, SO2 reduction, nitrous oxide emissions, we’ve made significant investments over the last 6 years in the plant.

Zhorov: That’s the Managing Director of the plant, Bob Arambel.

Over the last 6 years, the plant has also been collaborating with University of Wyoming on a pilot project for carbon capture technology.

Arambel: Obviously coal fired power plants are interested in carbon capture because that is our single largest emission. Technology right now is really not at a place where it’s feasible on a large scale.   

Zhorov: Professor KJ Reddy has been working on this technology since 1985 and leads the UW effort. The current iteration of it, says Reddy, is 20 times bigger than his first field experiment, but still nowhere near commercial scale.

Reddy: This is Unit 2. So we collect flue gas from Unit 2 stack exit port. See this white pipe? It goes outside and then to the stack…

Zhorov: The process basically takes flue gas and fly ash – both by-products of combustion in a power plant, that contain pollutants – and runs them through a reactor.

Reddy makes it sound easier than the gadgets and pipes make it look…

Reddy: This is a very simple process, one step process, you’re not doing anything, just you react the flue gas with fly ash particles… 

Zhorov: The result is that carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide – all the bad stuff the Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate – are mineralized in the fly ash. Reddy says this can be sold for various uses.

The project is currently funded through UW’s School of Energy Resources, which runs a grant program for clean coal technology research. The program is funded by the State, which has invested over 30 million dollars. Mark Northam is the Director of the School.

Northam: Ultimately the goal is for these to become commercial technologies that will improve the market and improve the utility of Powder River Basin coal.

Zhorov: Industry is scared that new regulations will continue to decrease coal’s utility, at least domestically. Northam says Wyoming, which depends heavily on coal for revenues, is giving its all to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Northam: It’s clear to me, in the future, if we want to get out of these boom and bust cycles, we need to have come level of value-added work going on in the state of Wyoming. It’s good for our economy because it provides jobs, but it also ensures that we have a revenue stream coming from natural resources….We have the capacity to continue to mine and ship the coal to everybody who wants, plus do the conversion here, in the state. 

Zhorov: As part of this effort, SER helped organize a conference in China about advanced coal technologies. The conference was attended by Northam, Wyoming’s Governor Matt Mead, as well as State legislators, their Chinese counterparts, and Australian delegates.

What Northam says they learned was that while China and Australia have long-term plans for coal into the future, the U.S. does not, and that’s a concern.

Northam: In the U.S. we really don’t have a policy regarding the utilization of coal. Our policy is around controlling some of the consequences of the utilization of coal and we don’t seem to have as much long-range thinking as we do reaction to problems that are cropping up.

Zhorov: For someone like Professor Reddy, that uncertainty is visible in his funding. It goes up and down depending on trends in government and public visibility of the problems associated with coal.

Though the U.S. policy is not as clear as China’s 5-year plans or Australia’s carbon tax structure, it is fairly obvious, at least until the next election, that the trend is towards more regulation. And for Northam, that means that the research efforts need to continue.

Northam: If we’re looking at the future of coal a decade out, those technologies need to be in place. So we are doing everything we can to aggressively invest in those key technologies to close the remaining gaps in making that a commercially viable technology.

Zhorov: In other words, Wyoming wants to make certain that the future of one of its largest industries is not bogged down by uncertainty.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.
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