GILLETTE — A fresh blanket of snow coated the field surrounding the Dry Fork Station power plant. Set underneath a flawless blue sky in the heart of Wyoming’s coal country, the untouched landscape looked like a blank canvas awaiting its first brush stroke.
Largely hidden from the eye, eight carbon capture testing pads sat just beneath the glistening snow, ready for use.
Jason Begger’s footsteps broke the silence, as the executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority strode across the field and pointed to two industrial ducts jutting out of the power plant. The ducts can transport about 5 percent of produced flue gas — a byproduct of burning coal — from the plant to the testing pads, where researchers then attempt to separate out the carbon dioxide, he explained.
Located on the site of Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s state-of-the-art coal plant, the Integrated Test Center is one of the world’s only utility-scale carbon capture laboratories attached directly to a coal facility.
“The goal of all of this is to maintain a viable asset in a world that is moving away from high carbon intensity projects,” said Begger, who helps oversee the testing center.
In this case, the asset that needs saving is Wyoming coal.
In the race to respond to shifting market pressures, Wyoming lawmakers and energy experts have been on the hunt for solutions to save the state’s ailing coal industry. Many, including Begger, consider advancements in carbon capture, or the trapping and reusing of carbon dioxide, as one part of the solution. Some go so far as to tout the budding technology as a silver bullet for the state. In the eyes of its proponents, carbon capture would eventually allow coal-fired power plants to eliminate emissions and continue humming along for decades to come.
But critics of the state’s hearty investment in carbon capture view it as a losing battle in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; it’s a venture that has already gobbled up billions of dollars in taxpayer money with few tangible returns, they say.
Despite the pushback, Wyoming lawmakers are diving head-first into the venture.
King of coal
Wyoming produces more coal than any other state in the country. Communities here take pride in contributing 40 percent of the coal needed to meet the nation’s electrical demand. The state also pumps out 15 times more energy than it consumes, making it the nation’s largest net exporter of energy.
But unsteady coal markets have thrown the state’s top ranking into jeopardy. Last year, U.S. coal consumption fell to the lowest level since 1979. That’s largely because coal’s once-stable customer base has branched out to cheaper natural gas and more commercially viable renewable energy.
What’s more, concerns over climate change have placed unprecedented pressure on utility companies to pivot to less carbon-intensive electricity sources. A vast majority of scientists agree that carbon dioxide is a leading contributor to human-caused climate change. Among the nation’s electricity producers, coal plants release the most carbon during operations, but only contribute to 31 percent of the nation’s energy supply, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet Begger sees the carbon dioxide emitted from coal not just as a waste product or environmental liability. Instead, it’s the key to saving the state’s challenged coal industry, he said. Capturing carbon produced during the processing of coal to electricity could keep the fossil industry viable, even amid growing demand for carbon reduction.
“Even though (coal markets) are going to fundamentally change, you don’t just throw your hands up and say: ‘We’re just walking away from this,’” Begger explained. “Like it or not, Wyoming is a fossil energy state, and we have set up our tax base and our economy really on the extractive industry.”
Many Wyomingites continue to hold out hope, viewing carbon capture as one slice of the solution to the state’s economic challenges.
The state has secured millions of federal dollars to research carbon capture. As recently as Nov. 18, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority announced plans to lay the groundwork for a massive network of carbon dioxide pipelines to criss-cross the state and transport the product.
To Begger, the stakes of carbon capture ventures could not be higher for Wyoming.
“You can help shape what the future looks like if you’re actually helping drive it. So, we’re trying to take that leadership role,” he said. “If you’re not at the table, pushing solutions and driving things, then you’re probably going to be on the menu.”
Imagine you’re a surfer and a 30-foot wave is descending upon you.
You have two choices: you can get up on that wave to ride it or you can drown, explained David Schlissel, a longtime attorney, consultant and expert witness on carbon capture.
“Market forces are dictating the transition from coal to other resources, particularly renewables,” he said. “... In other words, the governor can try to save coal, but the transition is going to be here regardless.”
The state needs to ensure coal-dependent communities can survive and thrive in the new energy economy, Schlissel emphasized. But the answer doesn’t rest with carbon capture.
“Rather than spend billions of dollars on carbon capture — and multi-billions if you’re talking about more than one coal plant — spend the money on the people,” he said.
The technological, economic and environmental hurdles facing carbon capture may prove to be too great, several analysts interviewed by the Star-Tribune cautioned.
It’s dangerous to view carbon capture as a panacea for Wyoming’s crippled coal industry, said Bob LeResche, vice chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and a board member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils.
“(Carbon capture) is a real unicorn, but there is no way to think of it as ever being economical,” he asserted. “... I would love it if someone would invent a silver bullet, but the odds of that happening are very, very slim.”
That hasn’t stopped the nation, and Wyoming, from trying.
Federal investment in the dream of capturing carbon isn’t new. For over 15 years, the federal government has pumped billions of dollars into 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.
So far, carbon capture projects have generated mixed results.
“Neither one of those plants have operated at the levels that they said they were going to operate when they built the facilities,” noted Dennis Wamsted, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy transition think tank.
NRG Energy, the owner of Petra Nova, has struggled to turn the carbon unit into the low-cost generator it had hoped for. The company collaborated with JX Nippon Oil and Gas Exploration Corp in Japan to tack on a carbon capture unit to its 3,700-megawatt Parish generating plant, according to a 2018 report published by IEEFA. Retrofitting the plant for carbon capture cost $1 billion. Approximately $190 million came from the federal government.
Flue gas from 240 megawatts of power are diverted from Petra Nova’s unit 8. That’s roughly one-third of total emissions from that one unit. The company then transports the captured carbon to nearby oilfields for enhanced oil recovery.
Gobbling up energy
But critics of carbon capture have pointed out that facilities, like Petra Nova, chew through an inordinate amount of energy, making carbon capture one of the most inefficient electricity generators among its peers. The sticking point mainly comes down to cost: It’s difficult to transform coal-fired power plants into low-carbon facilities using carbon capture without increasing electricity costs.
Outfitting a coal plant with a carbon capture system decreases the plant’s thermal efficiency and hikes up electricity costs, according to a University of Michigan study.
Petra Nova had to construct a natural gas unit next to the carbon capture system to provide enough energy to power it. Ironically, the natural gas plant spewed about 450,000 tons of carbon over the course of about 17 months, based on findings outlined in the IEEFA report.
Some carbon capture facilities, such as another one built in Mississippi by Southern Company, consumed 30 percent of the plant’s gross energy output, the report noted. To put it in perspective, natural gas plants eat up about 3 to 4 percent of their energy output for operations. The system’s inefficiency, and other technical problems, make producing energy through carbon capture significantly more expensive than a conventional natural gas plant.
In 2017, the Southern Company shut down the carbon capture section of its plant in Mississippi, citing the lack of fiscal feasibility. The Department of Justice subsequently launched an investigation into the company’s decision in May. The federal government had chipped in $387 million for the failed carbon capture project.
“Carbon capture is still expensive to do and it increases the cost of generated electricity,” confirmed Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming. “If you bolt it to a coal-fired power plant — that already can’t compete with other alternative energy sources like natural gas or renewables — it only makes it less competitive.”
That said, the technology could advance to solve efficiency and fiscal shortcomings currently hampering carbon capture units.
But it may be too little, too late.
“There’s still a lot of learning by doing to be done,” Godby said.
Carbon plants will likely not be able to compete with electricity markets soon enough, several analysts commented.
“Right now the biggest use that we have for carbon capture is enhanced oil recovery,” Godby added.
In the process, known as EOR, carbon dioxide is injected into reservoirs to remove residual oil that traditional drilling processes failed to extract. But coal-fired power plants generate so much carbon dioxide already.
“You don’t need too many (carbon capture facilities) before you satisfy all the EOR demand that you might have at a local region,” Godby said.
The lack of significant pipeline infrastructure blocks operators from expanding the product into other markets, even outside Wyoming.
The country’s coal fleet is aging, too. As operating lives of coal-fired power plants continue to shrink, upgrades, renovations and retrofit projects prove costly.
Skeptics point to low-carbon intensive energy systems like natural gas or wind as more viable options for Wyoming. Ultimately, it’s important the state is clear-eyed as it expands carbon capture capabilities, Godby said.“There is a real concern here that you are raising false hopes,” Godby lamented. “Carbon capture will not arrest the transition that is going on. It potentially creates a use for some of the coal and some of the facilities that we have in the state in the future, but we’re still looking at a whole heap of (coal) closures — whether they are mines or power plants — before that technology is widely implemented.”
The case for research
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, revolutionized the global energy economy in the blink of an eye. The practice, which involves injecting sand and chemicals into the ground at enormous pressures, suddenly allowed operators to extract astronomical volumes of oil and natural gas. Advancements in fracking technology and a sudden flood of investment in it during the early 2000s catapulted the U.S. into the upper echelons of the global oil market, a ranking it continues to occupy today.
But fracking wasn’t exactly a new technology when it went mainstream. It came onto the energy scene thanks to decades of research into how to make it both efficient and cost-effective. Therefore, even carbon capture skeptics consider research into carbon dioxide-reduction technology a worthwhile investment.
“I’m all in favor of research,” said Wamsted, the analyst at IEEFA. “Research has gotten us a long way. Research led to the fracking revolution for natural gas. Research done by the Department of Energy helped commercialize wind and solar technologies that are now driving (energy) costs down across the country. Research is a laudable and commendable and a goal that should be sought by both state and federal government.”
But the problem largely comes down to timing, he reasoned.
Coal production declined by 9 percent this year compared to last, according to the Energy Information Administration. Add to that the increasing urgency around reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting irreparable damage wrought by global warming.
“What we need are technologies and solutions that can reduce emissions now, not in 10 or 15 years,” Wamsted noted. “And the problem with carbon capture is that you can find a technology that will work, but can you find a technology that will work quick enough and cost-effective enough to be worthwhile?”
Carbon capture is still in its research and development stage. But that does not mean the state shouldn’t value the Integrated Test Center, or other state-led initiatives to advance carbon capture technologies, said Godby, the Wyoming economist.
“There’s a compelling basic research case (to be made) to continue developing those technologies,” he said. “They may in the future at some point be valuable, and so that basic research is reasonable and could potentially have future value, which right now is uncertain. ... Without actually studying it, we won’t know the potential value.”
Technologies in the pipeline
Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center came to be thanks to a $15 million appropriation from the Wyoming Legislature in 2014 under then-Gov. Matt Mead. What remains of the appropriated funding will support the center until 2026. At that point, Begger hopes the center will be able to sustain itself.
“The strategy is to commercialize those technologies to ensure we can reap the benefits of this incredible resource for as long as possible,” he said.
The center opened to significant fanfare in March and tenants have started to trickle in to experiment.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd., a Japanese company, plans to test carbon capture processes at the Integrated Test Center as part of a partnership between Wyoming and the Japan Coal Energy Center. The collaboration between the two entities launched in 2016. The company plans to be onsite in 2021 after construction of the design is complete, according to Begger.
Finalists from an international competition called Carbon XPRIZE will also be stationed at the Integrated Test Center in the near future. The competition provides millions of dollars to scientists who find ways to transform carbon dioxide into utilitarian products, like fuel or building materials.
In October, TDA Research trucked in a bright yellow skid from Colorado to test a hybrid system using two types of carbon capture technology. They will continue testing for the next three to four months at the center.
In Begger’s mind, what makes the center so special is its ability to pilot carbon capture technology on a scale comparable to commercial power plants. A majority of carbon capture tests happen in universities at laboratory benches. That’s a far cry from the scale of hundred-plus megawatt power plants.
“I don’t think anybody is naive enough to think that we’re going to be mining coal for 1,000 years,” Begger stated. “But until we have that transition in place, you can’t just shut it (down). A lot of what the state is doing is trying to find those pieces of science and a business plan to provide a transition and glide forward.
“A lot of it is just hope,” he added.