The Wyodak Energy Complex, seen here Sept. 2, 2022 is home to the Wyodak, Wygen II and Neil Simpson II coal-fired power plants. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Increased federal tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act will help lower the cost of applying carbon capture technology to coal-fired power plants, according to Black Hills Corporation, but not enough to justify the cost to Wyoming ratepayers.

Adding carbon capture to the Wygen II and Neil Simpson II coal plants, according Black Hills’ ongoing analysis, would increase rates for its customers in Wyoming by about 15%, or a range of $22.75 to $25.34 per month for the average residential customer and $40.71 to $103.97 per month for commercial customers. It would also reduce electrical generation output at the plants — both located outside Gillette — by more than 30%, exposing ratepayers to additional costs for replacement power.

“We’re fully supportive of [coal carbon capture],” Black Hills Energy Director of Regulatory and Finance Kyra Coyle told Wyoming public service commissioners during a public hearing Monday. “But we feel like we’re not quite there yet.”

Though the increased federal tax credits are not yet factored into rate estimates for installing carbon capture, it’s unclear how much the tax credits might lower the burden on customers, according to Black Hills.

“We are concerned that some of the price tags that have been thrown around are jaw dropping and would have a significant impact on ratepayers.”

Rick Thompson, Dyno Nobel legal counsel

One major risk lies in the federal 45Q tax credit program, Coyle said. The Inflation Reduction Act extends the timeline to tap the tax credit program and increases the value of the credit by about 70%. But the federal government, historically, has clawed back about half the 45Q tax credits it doles out, Coyle estimated, due to failures to meet stringent technological and performance requirements in storing and utilizing captured CO2.

“There’s significant financing risk with this level of investment in the plants, especially with the risk associated with the 45Q tax credit,” Coyle said. “You have to ensure that you own the [carbon capture] equipment that is installed. You are responsible for the transportation and sequestration of the CO2, or you’re contracting for that. It has to be in the ground without any leakage for at least three years. So there’s a lot of administrative responsibility and lack of true qualifications for 45Q tax credits.”

Wyoming’s ‘low-carbon’ portfolio standard

About 70% of electricity consumed in the state comes from coal-fired power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration. Gov. Mark Gordon and state lawmakers want to lower utility CO2 emissions without cutting back on coal-fired power. Doing so might help delay or prevent coal plant closures in the state by better aligning them with carbon standards in other states.

A lacquered chunk of Powder River Basin coal. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Most states have enacted some type of renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring utilities to provide a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. For example, public utilities in New Mexico must provide 40% carbon-emissions-free electricity by 2025, 80% by 2040 and 100% by 2045.

Wyoming chose a different approach. 

House Bill 200 – Reliable and dispatchable low-carbon energy standards, passed in 2020, does not prescribe a specific CO2 emissions-free percentage or specific timeline. Instead, the law directs the Wyoming Public Service Commission to come up with a percentage of non-CO2 emissions power for each individual coal power facility — with one major caveat: utilities with coal-fired power plants in the state must retrofit those facilities with carbon capture technology.

State officials have envisioned that carbon capture might help coal-fired plants achieve 80% CO2 emissions-free power while maintaining power delivery reliability and without drastically raising rates for Wyoming customers. This week, Black Hills Energy officials told the commission the percentage of CO2 emissions-free generation they can affordably and reliably achieve using carbon capture at the Wygen II and Neil Simpson II coal plants is zero.

But that doesn’t mean Black Hills is ruling out adding carbon capture to its Wyoming coal plants, Coyle said.

“We continue to stay engaged and evaluate additional opportunities that are out there as they become more technologically viable,” Coyle told commissioners. “[Black Hills will] decide what is best for our customers, both in regard to reliable generation as well as economic impacts.”

The Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant, pictured Jan. 19, 2022, has been in operation since the mid-1970s. Owner Rocky Mountain Power will consider adding carbon-capture technology to two of the four coal units. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

To get out of the HB 200 carbon capture requirement, utilities must prove it is technologically unfeasible or too costly to add the technology to their coal-burning power plants. But it’s unclear what standard must be met to gain an exemption. The public service commission is still developing rules to comply with HB 200.

Rocky Mountain Power is also presenting its initial cost and technical feasibility analysis to the commission. Both have until March 2023 to finalize their findings. 

Ratepayer responses

Wyoming’s HB 200 applies only to Wyoming-consumed electricity, which means Black Hills Power and Rocky Mountain Power can only tap their Wyoming customers to pay for the cost of adding carbon capture to their coal plants located in the state. It’s up to public utility authorities in other states to decide whether the companies can tap their customers for capital investments mandated by Wyoming.

The public service commission has contemplated a 2% rate increase cap for Wyoming ratepayers in enacting HB 200. But it’s unclear whether the commission will stick to it.

Dyno Nobel, which operates an explosives manufacturing plant outside Cheyenne, is one of Black Hills’ largest commercial electricity customers. The company wants the state to either cap ratepayer increases at the lowest possible level, or grant exemptions to utilities that determine adding coal carbon capture is too costly. 

“We are concerned that some of the price tags that have been thrown around are jaw dropping and would have a significant impact on ratepayers,” Dyno Nobel legal counsel Rick Thompson told commissioners. The HB 200 coal carbon capture mandate “seems somewhat counterproductive,” Thompson added. “It’s so prohibitively expensive that companies can no longer afford to purchase power.”

Dignitaries celebrate the groundbreaking for the Innovation Center coal refinery field demonstration project north of Gillette on Sept. 2, 2022. It will be co-located with Atlas Carbon’s facility that produces activated carbon products. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Both Dyno Nobel and HF Sinclair Corporation, which operates a renewable diesel refinery in Cheyenne, intervened in the Black Hills case before the public service commission. 

Black Hills’ initial estimate of a 15% rate increase could easily double, or even shrink, depending on the success of various federal programs aimed at bolstering carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies, Deputy Administrator for the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate Anthony Ornelas told commissioners.

“Frankly, we are not yet where we need to be in order for the commission, or other interested parties, to really ascertain whether or not a potential CCUS technology solution is currently feasible and economic and in the best interest of Wyoming ratepayers,” Ornelas said.

Powder River Basin Resource Council attorney Shannon Anderson noted that carbon capture requires water. Black Hills’ analysis doesn’t include potential costs for securing and consuming more water, which is a scarce commodity in northeast Wyoming. Wygen II and Neil Simpson II, among other coal plants in the region, rely on air-cooling systems to supplement what little water is available.

The utility’s initial estimate for adding CCUS to Wygen II is $505.9 million — more than twice the cost of building the plant in 2008, Anderson noted. The estimated cost of adding CCUS to Neil Simpson II is $474.8 million — triple the cost to build the plant in 1995. That additional ratepayer burden, shouldered solely by the utility’s Wyoming customers, Anderson said, doesn’t even factor the cost of replacing the 30% loss in generating capacity that comes with adding CCUS. 

“The initial cost projection of carbon capture compared to the overall cost of the generation units exemplifies why careful review of cost and risk is so necessary as we proceed with implementation of House Bill 200,” Anderson said.

Commissioners directed Black Hills to include more detailed analysis regarding costs for replacement power, managing CO2 that’s captured and how the utility would secure more water. They also directed Black Hills to provide more details about how emerging federal CCUS programs might influence the cost and feasibility analysis.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Carbon capture and disposal sounds like an easy fix. However some costs are hard to define making decisions to proceed fraught with possible negative surprises. Consider the wastewater disposal problems caused by early shale-play practices of simple underground disposal versus water recycling. Underground injection of CO2 has high probability of creating similar problems. CO2 has much higher mobility than H2O making it hard to predict where it will ultimately go.

    Has analysis been done to compare the cost of carbon capture versus converting coal power plants to natural gas? The conversion cost is high up front but the long term costs will be much lower than ongoing carbon capture and finding places to store it safely. There is no giant reservoir in the subsurface that will accept CO2 injection safely for decades.

  2. This all seems like smoke and mirrors. Black Hills Corporation is market driven, responding to federal regulations to address climate change. The Legislature is funded by Big Coal and is doing their bidding. Big Coal is paying its representatives to do their best to postpone the inevitable decline of the role of coal in energy generation. What Bleizeffer’s article demonstrates in the big picture is the collision of motivations. It’s really all about Big Coal resisting federal mandates to address climate change through the vehicle of Wyoming’s Legislature.

    Bleizeffer does an excellent job quoting the various actors, demonstrating how slippery this whole issue is.

    When projected costs are culled from the rhetoric, and the absence of costs related to obtaining rights to more water put in, carbon capture in Wyoming makes no sense, financially and environmentally.

  3. utter madness. Two to three times the cost of building the plants to TRY and capture CO2 emissions. Designating CO2 as a hazardous air pollutant, HAP in regulatory jargon, began this whole foreseeable train wreck. CO2 is not a HAP nor have increased atmospheric levels of CO2 in the past (pre industrial) been clearly correlated with periods of planetary warming. And just beacuse other states like New Mexico have set some arbitrary RPS goals does not mean there is any remotely practical means of achiving them. With hydropower or nuclear power maybe but last time I checked NM has neither.

    1. Thanks Mike. Glad to see someone went to see the wizard. The scarecrow mentality is a product of too little knowledge and a taste for pain. CO2 is life. Life. Period.
      The same people that want this want you to eat bugs and buy a $90k electric boat anchor with wheels and want to kill off our eagles and turn Europe into a cemetery. Brilliant.
      More CO2 is a good thing. Unless your goal is to reduce the food supply while you ramp up the cost of energy and flood the country with needy grifters and drug dealers who will vote your way.

    2. Mike,
      Respectfully, we know industrial age CO2 emission is a serious problem for global climate. However the tree huggers have no idea how to manage it. They want to legislate out the hydrocarbon energy business but there is nothing to replace it. We need to work on replacing hydrocarbons with non CO2 sources but it will take time. We should support replacement and let hydrocarbons whither as they are replaced. Legislating US reduction in hydrocarbon production like the Biden administration is doing only means we will have to import more hydrocarbons before we can reduce our usage. That is idiotic!!! Let the markets work.

      1. Respectfully , I dont understand why it is the responsibility of “tree huggers” to manage CO2 emissions. I always thought when you make a mess you clean it up. Sounds like its a problem that the solution will require all of us to solve.

        1. We didn’t cause anything.
          They are creating scarcity and inflation and poverty and telling us we are the problem.
          No. They are the problem.
          Problem, reaction, solution.
          They created problems so they could order us around. How about we just say NO?
          If you have no right to say NO, then you are a slave. That is the point of all of this.