A dragline digs out Wyoming coal from a strip mine in the Powder River Basin. (USGS — click to enlarge)

Miners load Wyoming coal from a strip mine in the Powder River Basin. The state has spent millions on clean coal research, which may still have a future under EPA’s new carbon emissions rules. (USGS — click to enlarge)

Wyoming coal research still in play under new CO2 standards

By Dustin Bleizeffer
— October 1, 2013

Wyoming has committed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars toward research and development of technologies that could help justify the construction of new coal facilities one day, and possibly even help retain existing coal-fired power plants under federal carbon dioxide emission limits.

So it was sobering when Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, responding to news of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s CO2 limits on new coal-fired power plants, said the standards may snuff out the drive for such research.

The Polk Power Station in Florida was built in the 1990s using engineering advances developed under the Department of Energy's Clean Coal Technology Demonstration program. (NETL — click to enlarge)

The Polk Power Station in Florida — one of the cleanest coal plants ever built — came online in the 1990s using engineering advances developed under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Technology Demonstration program. Gov. Mead said new carbon emissions standards could arrest coal research. (DOE — click to enlarge)

“The standards for coal-fired power generation in the proposed rule are unachievable and will arrest research, development and commercialization of clean technologies,” Gov. Mead said in a prepared statement on September 20. “This poses grave implications for the continuing viability of coal as an energy source and for the economic stability of Wyoming and the nation.”

Wyoming has appropriated a total $41 million to the University of Wyoming’s Advanced Conversions Technologies Task Force since 2007, and about $35 million has been allocated to research projects — all of those funds have been matched by outside resources. Some 49 projects have been awarded funds under the program, and 25 projects are completed.

As with just about any statement by an elected official, there are unspoken nuances in Gov. Mead’s September statement regarding the new CO2 standards.

For example, the University of Wyoming’s 50-50 joint venture with General Electric to build the $100 million High Plains Coal Gasification research center in Cheyenne was “delayed” back in July 2011 for lack of a clear federal policy pathway for advanced coal technologies. The focus of the effort was to increase the efficiencies and lower the cost of “dry feed” technologies — preparing coal to be gasified — so that Powder River Basin coal could one day be an economically viable fuel for coal-gasification power generation.

University officials confirmed last week that the project is still on hold, meaning the project is essentially mothballed. A portion of Wyoming’s Abandoned Mine Lands funds that were set aside for the project have been “re-appropriated,” said UW officials.

Mark Northam, Director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources

Mark Northam, Director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that carbon capture and coal-gasification research and development is no longer in play under the new EPA rules. Another nuance not mentioned in Gov. Mead’s declaration that the CO2 standards will arrest research and development is the fact that, as usual, policy is moving much more slowly than the technology itself.

WyoFile asked Mark Northam, director of UW’s School of Energy Resources, whether the EPA’s new CO2 standards effectively negate the drive for current research at Wyoming’s land grant university.

“Not at all,” Northam answered. But — and this is where there’s endless nuance — the science community is both leading and following policy directives at the national and international levels, and so-called “advanced coal technology” research development is still very much in play.

Northam explained that even the CO2 standards for new natural gas-fired power generation — which were rolled out with CO2 standards for new coal on September 20 — were aimed at the Best Available Control Technology that exists today. The EPA standard for new coal plants — 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour — essentially confirmed that no new coal plants will be constructed without some advanced carbon capture system. While the CO2 standard for new natural gas-fired power generation — 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour — keeps even the current fleet of natural gas turbines within the standard.

Last week the EPA set new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The rule will essentially require all new coal plants to employ clean coal technology. (USGS — click to enlarge)

Last week the EPA set new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The rule will effectively require all newly-built coal plants to employ carbon capture technology. (USGS — click to enlarge)

Bad news for Wyoming coal, and good news for Wyoming gas.

But, Northam explained, the CO2 standard for natural gas will necessarily become more stringent in the current political trajectory nationally and internationally. And that creates a certain research and development drive for the type of carbon capture technologies — cryogenic carbon capture among them — that can be applied to both natural gas-fired and coal-fired power plants.

“The technology that works for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal also works for natural gas, and I think, eventually, that’s the next target; reducing those emissions. So in my opinion research might be delayed but it’s certainly not down for the count,” Northam told WyoFile.

As for the dry feed technology that GE proposed to engineer down to commercialization costs specifically for Powder River Basin coal, those prospects are uncertain today. Industry sources say the engineering research is shifting toward “bolt on” technologies — those applications that can be attached to existing coal-fired power plants — rather than the capital- and operating-intense coal-gasification designs.

UW’s School of Energy Resources is keeping this in mind, according to Northam, and so advanced coal research will — or should — continue.

In the meantime, Richard Walje, president of Rocky Mountain Power, recently told a Wyoming legislative committee that his coal-heavy utility still will not consider new coal-fueled power generation in its planning. Instead, Rocky Mountain Power — also known as PacifiCorp in the five western states where it operates — plans to meet two-thirds of its new electrical demands through efficiency.

Capital costs for any technology that reduces emissions from coal are expensive, but given the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in non-carbon reducing technology to-date ($900 million already spend on PacifiCorp’s Wyoming coal fleet, plus another $600 million in planned upgrades) prove that coal generation is so cheap that it still pays to invest heavily to cut emissions from coal. But it’s the operating costs of new coal gasification facilities that really negate the economic justification.

“CO2 is going to be expensive to put into the atmosphere in some fashion,” Walje testified to a Wyoming legislative committee last week in Cheyenne. He said when it comes to determining the technologies that may keep coal in America’s electrical generation fuel mix, regulated utilities like PacifiCorp have a minor role.

“The big challenge for us is we don’t have a mechanism to recover any research and development we might invest,” Walje said.

For more on the Clean Coal Task Force, read these articles:
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Contact him at 307-267-3327 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer

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Published on October 1, 2013

  • DeweyV

    Seems like the research to find a ” magic ” solution to harness a clean burning coal process is more akin to medieval alchemy than modern R & D.

    – or put in the Wyoming vernacular, kicking a dying horse that just ain’t all the way dead yet.

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