Wyoming Ratchets Up Carbon Capture Efforts As Some Look Back Decades

Sep 4, 2020

Earlier this summer, organizations got together across Wyoming to give testimony about the largest utility in the state's controversial plan to make a shift away from coal and towards renewables.

Rocky Mountain Power's plan didn't sit well with many including Kent Connolly. The Lincoln County commissioner said, when PacifiCorp's plant in his county shuts down early, it's not just jobs leaving.

"I lose 50 percent of the taxes, it's just that simple," he said.

Connolly said coal plants don't have to be removed. They could actually stick around if utilities just considered retrofitting them with something called carbon capture.

"We will change how we use coal in America, there's no doubt about it," said Connolly. "We'll get there with carbon capture."

Aerial photo of the W.A. Parish Generating Plant, taken from the northwest. (Wikipedia)
Credit RM VM

The idea is that a regular coal plant would be retrofitted with the technology, remove its emissions, and then some other entity could use those emissions for a profitable purpose.

Several international institutions recognize carbon capture as a tool to help address climate change including the United Nations. But PacifiCorp said, right now, it's too expensive and unproven.

At the time, Rick Link, PacifiCorp's vice president of resource planning and acquisitions, said its decision is an economic one.

"The entire analysis is driven by shifts and changes in the market conditions and there's not one single one to point to. It's a combination of various factors."

Carbon capture is not a new idea in Wyoming. The state has supported it for over a decade; about since production started trending downward for coal.

Recently though, support for it has started to ratchet up.

This year, Wyoming's legislature passed a bill mandating utilities produce a certain amount of electricity from coal plants using carbon capture by 2030. It would be up to ratepayers to reimburse the utility for the extra expense.

The state acquired responsibility from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to permit wells to store carbon dioxide underground.

State leadership has held several public hearings recently to promote the tech including the Governor's office who offered alternatives to PacifiCorp's Baseline Integrated Resource Plan, focusing instead on carbon capture.

"In Wyoming, burning coal is not the issue, it is the release of CO2 that we should focus on," he said in a press conference. "This delegation is part of our strategy to use today's technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage to keep coal burning, reduce CO2 emissions, and keep jobs here in Wyoming"

Department of Energy's (DOE) Funding for Advanced Fossil Energy Research and Development (R&D) Projects Other than Large Demonstration Projects Started from Fiscal Years 2010 through 2017, by Fiscal Year Started
Credit Gas analysis of DOE data

The Trump Administration has also passed and extended a federal tax credit for carbon capture, with help from U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, and is funding research projects, including for several new phases of efforts here in the state.

Dr. Holly Krutka, is director of the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources - the school responsible for several U.S. Department of Energy funded carbon capture projects.

Krutka was recently on a panel alongside other Wyoming leadership at the Integrated Test Center in Gillette. She envisions novel products made from Wyoming coal with the capture and use of processed carbon dioxide emissions to minimize the carbon footprint.

"Soil amendments, building materials, asphalt replacement."

Krutka also spoke about other products that can be made using CO2 with the help of certain processes. Just outside the press conference, one company competing in an international competition is using Co2 utilization to create low-carbon concrete. Carbon dioxide can also be used to pull more oil from the ground or be turned into a low-emission gas.

All this action around carbon capture comes as coal production has fallen to historically low levels. Since last June, consumption of it has dropped by a fifth. And just since March, Wyoming has seen over 600 coal-related lay-offs. The hope for some is that carbon capture could help rebuild that demand for coal.

The problem is others think the moment for carbon capture, at least to help the resource, has passed.

Dr. Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, remembers giving presentations promoting it to the coal industry in the early 2000s warning that climate change would be the resource's demise.

"I said, 'Look, if the year 2020 comes around, you are not going to be allowed to build a new coal plant because every bank in the country will know that they will not get their money back,'" he explained. "'So you better by 2020 have the ability to build power plants that are completely carbon neutral.'"

But that didn't happen. Rob Godby, University of Wyoming energy economist, said part of the reason could be politics.

"It probably would be way farther down the road if the party that usually supports coal hadn't gone down this dead-end road of 'climate change doesn't exist' because that undermines coal's interests. If climate change doesn't exist, there's no justification to develop low carbon technologies like carbon capture," he said.

Support and opposition for Wyoming's energy technologies and production. The survey was conducted jointly by UW's School of Energy Resources and the Ruckelshaus Institute in fall 2019 and winter 2020
Credit United States Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy

Only one coal plant in the U.S. created a successful business model for carbon-capture. It's called Petra Nova in Texas, but shut down after the pandemic led to an oil price crash.

Dennis Wamsted, analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a renewable think-tank, said, now, he can no longer imagine a utility saying, "'Hey! We really want to do this, we really want to build a carbon capture facility and we really want to put it on our 35 -year-old, 40-year-old coal plant and we're gonna prove its gonna make money.'"

But leadership in Wyoming isn't just going to give up. Gov. Mark Gordon pointed to the wind industry in its early days.

"At the time, there was a lot of conversation about how wind generation had no economic future, it was a waste of time, etc. etc. So, fast forward to the last several years and see, as these pinwheels start showing up in the West, how much more economically viable they are," he said.

Godby agreed. If carbon capture will succeed, it will need to follow in wind energy's footsteps: enjoy incentives and get utility's looking. Gordon said there's a cost borne with that, but "we know the urgency."

Correction 9/16/20: The story previously said Dr. Holly Krutka envisioned using CO2 emissions to create novel products, when in fact she envisions using coal for those products with the help of those emissions.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.