Unpacking Wyoming’s hope to meet climate change goals by utilizing coal plants
Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon is the leader of a group of western governors for the next year, and his goal is to explore ‘decarbonization’ as a way to address climate change. Gordon recently held a workshop in Gillette, which Wyoming Public Radio’s energy reporter Caitlin Tan attended. She spoke with WPR’s news director Kamila Kudelska.
Kamila Kudelska: First let's unpack ‘decarbonization.’ What does that really mean?
Caitlin Tan: So it can mean a lot of things. It's basically anything that can remove or reduce greenhouse gasses, which are what are warming the climate. So decarbonization could literally be planting trees because they remove carbon from the air. But what Wyoming is focusing on is a bit more complicated. It's called carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), something we've all probably heard of, but we don't necessarily understand super well.
KK: I think a lot of us in Wyoming have heard that word. Can you give us a quick explainer, what does carbon capture really mean?
CT: I mean, it's complicated and it's controversial. But in its simplest form, it's capturing carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. And so the idea is to either capture it from the air, so carbon that's already out in the atmosphere, or to capture it before it gets into the air, which is what that workshop was focused on. So for Wyoming, what they want to do is retrofit their coal plants with carbon capture technology. So the idea being that once the carbon is captured, it can be stored underground in a sponge-like layer, or it could even possibly be used for things like fertilizer or building materials. But I should note that, a lot of this technology is still in the research phase, we don't really know if it can work on a commercial scale yet.
KK: So how did this all play into the workshop you attended last week?
CT: It was part of the Western Governors’ Association, which is basically all of the western states, and Governor Mark Gordon is the chair of it right now. He's making carbon capture a big focus, and it seems like he wants to show that Wyoming can lead the way on displaying how carbon capture technology can be used to help with climate change, because not all of the western states are actually really convinced by this. At the end of the workshop, Gordon sat down with me, and he spoke about how we do need to take climate change seriously,
“Anybody who's been a hunter, who's been in the mountains, who's gone looking for sheep, who can look at those, what used to be glaciers, and are now snowfields, or snowfields that they no longer can see, can recognize that things are changing,” Gordon said. “Now, what I don't think that equates to, is that we need to shut off what we currently depend on. Moreover, I don't think it means that the jobs and the careers that we have in our energy sector need to be shut down.”
CT: Meaning, he doesn't want to shut down coal production, even though it's a big contributor to climate change. Gordon says he thinks that would be economically devastating for the state of Wyoming – we are a top producer of coal. So his hope is that carbon capture can prove itself and make the coal industry in a sense, cleaner, and basically keep it alive.
So at the workshop, there were about 30 of us – leaders from across the West and even D.C. that went on this tour of Wyoming's research facility, which is called the Integrated Test Center. There's actually only a handful of places like it in the world. It's attached to a coal plant called the Dry Fork Station just north of Gillette. The idea is for companies to be able to play around at the test center and try to capture carbon from this coal plant and use that carbon in some way or figure out how to store it. With the idea being that one day this technology will be at a point that it can be used on a commercial scale.
KK: Okay, so that sounds really interesting, but also super complicated.
CT: For sure. To be honest, it was pretty confusing for me, and covering this is my job. And it's not even just me. Even the people deep in it, recognize that it's confusing. You can kind of hear it in Will Morris’s voice, he heads up a lot of what's happening at the test center. I actually caught him right after the tour and we had this exchange:
“I'm wondering if you could just give me a layman's term version of what we just toured,” I said. We both let out a chuckle. He replied, “Yeah, that's an excellent question. I think, you know, the important thing to remember with anything related to energy is it's just really, really big.”
He actually used the metaphor of getting a K-12 education. So, we don't try to enter the workforce or go to college as 10 year olds, right? We go to grade school first. So that's kind of what it's like for these companies interested in carbon capture. They know what they want to do, but they don't necessarily know how to get there yet. So Morris says this test center is their way of figuring it out.
“And I would call this maybe kind of the junior high to high school phase of the technology development, where we've gotten the fundamentals worked out, we've got a really good idea of how the technologies work,” he said. “But we're furthering that education. And we're getting them prepared to go out into the world and go out into industry.”
So right now, the project at the test center that's the furthest along is from the Japanese company, Kawasaki Heavy Industries. You might recognize their name from motorcycles and dirt bikes, but they're getting into the world of carbon capture too. So after about five months of construction, they've wrapped up their pilot project for testing carbon capture. So they're going to begin actually using it in early October – actually testing this technology.
KK: Is this the first time it's being tested?
CT: Yeah. It's a pretty big deal.
KK: So it sounds like there's promising work going on. But what about pushback?
CT: There's definitely a lot of that too. So there's environmental and conservation groups who say this is an expensive uphill battle. Wyoming alone is sinking tens of millions of dollars into researching this. These groups say that we're also kind of running out of time, there's huge nationwide emission goals that have to be met by 2035. And as of now, this technology isn't ready to be deployed yet. So that's a big problem.
And then one of the largest sticking points is that the technology would, in theory, allow coal production to continue, which some of these people feel like is partly how we got ourselves into this climate change situation to begin with. Here's Robin Bagley, she's with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“We don't believe that adding carbon capture to coal fired power plants is in the best interests of ratepayers, or the climate. Because it's expensive. It's unproven at commercial scale, and we don't believe it really works,” she said. “We believe instead, it would make more sense to put more resources into developing renewable energy, into resiliency in the grid, rather than spending time and money on carbon capture on coal plants.”
KK: So at the beginning of that tape, Bagley mentioned ‘in the best interest of ratepayers.’ What does that mean?
CT: So in order for carbon capture to get off the ground with coal plants, major utilities have to be on board. This is a huge part of the equation, because many of the coal plants in Wyoming are run by utility companies like PacifiCorp, or you might know them by the name, Rocky Mountain Power. And so far, the company has indicated that they're not really interested in the technology. Their plan is to actually shift more toward renewables and natural gas and move away from coal.
But in the last few years, the Wyoming Legislature actually required Rocky Mountain Power to explore what it would take to retrofit their coal plants with carbon capture technology, basically to prevent them from retiring those plants early. So even though the utilities don't want to do this, they have to at least consider it. And just to consider it is going to cost money that's going to be passed down to ratepayers in Wyoming like you and me. Actually, just this year Rocky Mountain Power implemented a surcharge to customers of $2 million, which comes out to about .3 percent per customer.
KK: If I'm understanding correctly, that's just extra money so that Rocky Mountain Power can research whether carbon capture can happen.
CT: Exactly. Because even just researching it is expensive.
KK: So it's literally falling on Wyomingites to invest in carbon capture?
CT: Partially. That's what a lot of groups who are opposing this are worried that it's going to fall onto the backs of ratepayers.
KK: So this is a lot. What does this all mean going forward?
CT: So basically, Wyoming is going to move forward with trying to figure out this carbon capture technology for coal plants. And it's really hoping that it'll become attractive enough that other western states will jump on board. Right now, it doesn't seem like the demand or interest is necessarily where it needs to be. But, Wyoming leaders, like Governor Gordon, are really hopeful this will change and even that by the end of the decade, they can prove that this technology is viable. Basically saying that they were right, even when everyone else doubted them.