Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi converged in Gillette on Wednesday for a field hearing on carbon capture and sequestration, or the trapping and reusing of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and pollutant.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held its hearing at the Integrated Test Center, located on the site of the state-of-the-art Dry Fork Station power plant in the heart of Wyoming coal country. The ITC is one of the world’s only utility-scale carbon capture laboratories attached directly to a coal facility, capable of hosting large pilot projects.
Barrasso, the committee’s chairman, initiated the hearing to promote investment in energy innovations, with a specific eye toward the possibilities of commercializing carbon capture in Wyoming.
“Wyoming continues to be the leading state in the nation in carbon capture research,” Barrasso said in his opening remarks.
The dream of many here is to find a commercially viable method to eventually capture all carbon emissions coming from coal-fired power plants. That way, coal could continue being used as an energy source, even in a low-carbon future, proponents say. The captured carbon could then be used for enhanced oil recovery, transformed into new products or sequestered underground.
But figuring out how to make carbon capture economically viable and efficient enough to warrant investment will be key.
“Just outside these doors is a world-class facility where research is currently underway to study how we can create commercial value from carbon dioxide that would otherwise just go up into the air,” Barrasso said. “The center will research how to transform coal-fired power plant emissions into building materials like cement, as well as alternative fuels.”
The ITC offers eight carbon capture testing pads for teams of researchers to set up shop on. Industrial ducts from the neighboring power plant transport about 5% of produced flue gas — a byproduct of burning coal — to the testing pads. Researchers then attempt to separate out the carbon dioxide for other uses. The center has already hosted multiple teams of scientists to advance the cutting-edge research.
Three witnesses, hailing from Wyoming and beyond, provided testimony to the pair of senators on Wednesday. Each outlined the merits of investing in carbon capture.
“If there is one thing that you take away from my testimony, let it be that Wyoming is an ideal place to drive innovation and deployment of climate-focused technologies, such as carbon capture, use and storage,” Holly Krutka, executive director of School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming, said to the committee.
According to Krutka, Wyoming is the perfect place to grow a carbon capture technology sector because the state has the “will to drive technology development with the necessary policy support that can ultimately result in commercialization.”
The School of Energy Resources is also leading CarbonSAFE, a program researching how to make the storage of millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year underground commercially and environmentally feasible. The program is funded in part by the Department of Energy through the Carbon Storage Assurance Enterprise.
Put to use
Outdoors, under the beating sun on the ITC’s testing grounds, TDA Research provided a glimpse into their own carbon capture research hub in action on Wednesday.
Underneath a big white tent, several machines, roughly the size of refrigerators, audibly chugged along. The system takes a small sample of flue gas discarded from the nearby coal-fired power plant and uses a hybrid system to filter out, or capture, the carbon dioxide.
The team of TDA scientists had trucked the equipment to Gillette from Colorado on a bright yellow skid last October and plan to stay to collect as much data as they can.
A majority of carbon capture tests like this are relegated to university laboratory benches. That’s a far cry from the scale of hundred-plus megawatt power plants. The ITC has enabled the team to test their membrane and solid solvents to remove carbon dioxide from authentic flue gas. Experimenting with a byproduct coming from an operating coal plant provides a richer and more accurate dataset to analyze, according to lead scientist David Gribble.
TDA’s goal is to pilot the technologies to make them as cost-effective and efficient as possible before scaling them up for commercial use.
While several scientists are busy figuring out ways to trap carbon dioxide, others are investigating ways to reuse it.
Marcius Extavour, the executive director of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE — an international competition to transform carbon dioxide into utilitarian products, also served as a witness during the field hearing. He stressed seeing carbon dioxide not as a waste product but as a valuable resource.
“Our global economy today is fundamentally reliant on carbon-based materials, whether that’s food, building materials, textiles, fuel, fertilizers and paints,” he said. “All of those materials can actually be manufactured using CO2 as a basic feedstock, as an alternative to fossil hydrocarbons, especially oil and gas.”
Some researchers have already made inroads in making these kinds of carbon products.
Extavour’s Carbon XPRIZE dangles the prospect of $20 million in prize money to motivate scientists, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers to come up with solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. In this case, that problem is how to reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by catching it and using it to create other things.
Ten Carbon XPRIZE finalists from around the world were selected to test out their ideas, and half of the groups plan to do so at the ITC. The finalists have continued to work on advancing their ideas, which range from transforming carbon waste into hand sanitizer, cement, fuel and other useful materials. The winners will be announced in the spring.
Federal investment in capturing carbon isn’t new.
For over 15 years, the federal government has dedicated billions of dollars to the effort. Since 2010, it has appropriated over $5 billion to the U.S. Department of Energy for carbon capture research, according to a U.S. Congressional Review Service report.
“Currently, many Department of Energy funded projects must travel to Norway to scale up,” said Jason Begger, managing director of the ITC. “The Wyoming ITC provides an opportunity to spend those U.S. dollars here at a substantially reduced cost, providing better value to our taxpayers.”
The state of Wyoming and the coal industry have lobbied hard in recent years to devote more funding to coal carbon capture proposals and research.
Barrasso introduced the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies, or USE IT, Act to encourage more research into carbon capture. The Senate approved the act, but it still needs a vote in the House.
“The USE IT Act helps researchers find commercial uses for captured carbon dioxide emissions,” Barrasso said Wednesday. “It supports the use of carbon capture technology including direct air capture. The USE IT Act also directs the federal government to work with developers to expedite, not block, permitting. We know too well that delayed permitting can kill projects.”
In 2018, Congress also revised Section 45Q of the tax code to provide more favorable tax incentives to companies engaged in carbon capture and sequestration. The 45Q federal tax credit is given to companies for each ton of carbon dioxide they sequester in the ground. Since then, the program has received feedback from potential claimants, and the Internal Revenue Service recently proposed rules to regulate the program.
Barrasso and others are pushing for an extension. But opponents of the tax credit have concerns about industrial sequestration of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery because it does not necessarily guarantee a net climate benefit. (For instance, the process emits more carbon dioxide when the oil is used for chemical feedstock or burned.) More stringent monitoring requirements are needed, some advocates for the environment and taxpayers say.
Critics of the nation and state’s hearty investment in carbon capture view it as a losing battle in an increasingly carbon-constrained world. Skeptics worry taxpayer money could be more effectively spent on the transition away from fossil fuels, toward cheap renewable energy. That’s in part because, even with federal support, carbon capture projects have generated mixed results, especially when executed for commercial purpose. It turns out retrofitting carbon capture onto coal-fired units has, so far, been energy intensive, expensive and less efficient.
Just two operating carbon capture power plants exist in North America: Petra Nova power plant in Houston and Boundary Dam Power Station in Canada. In May, NRG energy suspended operation of its 240-megawatt Petra Nova carbon capture and storage unit, due to unfavorable economic conditions and high operating costs.
“Proponents of these (carbon capture) projects are selling an unproven dream that in all likelihood will become a nightmare for unsuspecting investors,” Dennis Wamsted, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis think tank, said in an Aug. 3 report investigating the closure of the Petra Nova unit. “Investors would do well to conduct their due diligence before investing in any coal-fired carbon capture project anywhere.”
But Wyoming lawmakers and other leaders in the energy field consider the investment in research one worth taking, especially if that could mean Wyoming leading the nation in a new type of technology. The groundbreaking discoveries could be key to reducing the volume of climate-warming carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere every day, according to supporters.
From day one in office, Wyoming’s governor has championed the development of carbon capture research and technology as a way to continue supporting the state’s fossil fuel industry, while also addressing rising carbon dioxide levels.
Randall Luthi, Gov. Mark Gordon’s chief energy adviser, cited the current conditions of “oil wars, unwarranted pressure on coal and the pandemic” as reasons to throw support into researching the future of trapping carbon dioxide.
“This test center represents innovation, cooperation and hope for our future,” Luthi said. “At a time of so many loud voices to remove fossil fuels from our portfolio, this center focuses on the real issue: How do we remove CO2 from our atmosphere? And what are the other uses of coal and CO2 that could benefit our economy?”
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