GILLETTE — While fossil fuels are falling out of favor around the United States, the Powder River Basin could be the perfect spot for an evolution of the coal industry. If that’s going to happen, it will require buy-in from local governments.
That’s why officials with the Energy Capital Economic Development’s Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center talked to the Campbell County Commission and Gillette City Council on Tuesday, letting them know that the organization needs money to get started.
Dave Spencer of the Advanced Carbon Collaborative said with ACPIC, “We’re trying to design a system that will actually be self-sufficient.”
For the ACPIC to stand on its own, it needs some help at the beginning, he said, acknowledging there are a lot of demands on the county’s money.
The project will cost about $2.8 million. Energy Capital has already secured $1.7 million, most from a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council. But it’s trying to fill that $1.1 million gap and plans to go after state and federal grants to make up a majority of that.
The research facility also requires an operating subsidy in the first few years. The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources has already pledged $50,000, and Energy Capital will ask the city and county to match that with $50,000 each.
Commissioner Clark Kissack said the county is stuck between a rock and a hard place. With declining revenues, the county will have less money to work with, but at the same time it has to invest in things like ACPIC to make up those declines.
“Can we afford not to (invest)? I don’t think so. We just have to have the conversation,” he said. “We want to leave it as good or better than we found it. This is one of those things we can do.”
“We shouldn’t expect this to replace what we’re doing now,” Spencer said. “It’s going to be a new economy.”
Commissioner Matt Avery suggested the county form an account for this project.
“We’ve got a couple of years to prepare. Maybe during our budget process, set some money aside for this each year to build that account up,” he said.
Mark Northam, director of the UW School of Energy Resources, said the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, funds shovel-ready projects for economic development.
“Their new director is very keen on coming up to Gillette” to see the Integrated Test Center and the coal mines, he said.
“We have an opportunity to make the case that the DOE should fund some work up here,” he said.
The ACPIC is important to the School of Energy Resources because although it’s “doing great things in the lab” as it moves technologies closer to commercialization, it needs to scale up, Northam said.
“We don’t have a place to do that in Laramie. We have no access to the coals we need,” he said. “I’m very confident we will be a tenant (at the ACPIC).”
He said UW will have a project “ready to locate here in two years, maybe within a year.” In addition, there are “five companies very close to wanting to do things here.”
It’s unlikely that all five will come to the ACPIC, he said. “Even if half of them do, that’s a pretty good score for us.”
In September, the School of Energy Resources will establish an office in Gillette.
Powder River Basin coal is excellent for conversion into products because of its low sulfur and mercury content, as well as its favorable moisture content, Northam said.
Northam said there are many products that can be made from carbon, including asphalt that is more durable in rapidly changing temperatures, soil amendments that improve fertility and a cheaper form of carbon fiber. The first two, he said, could be available very soon.
Commissioner Micky Shober couldn’t help but notice the irony of the situation, but said he’s glad the conversation is taking place.
“My dad was a bomber pilot in World War II and spent a lot of time dropping bombs on Germany’s enhanced coal plants,” he said. “What’s amazing is it’s taken this long for this to come back and start talking about it.”