(Casper Star Tribune, April 28) – Gov. Matt Mead, state officials and utility executives broke ground on a test center at a coal-fired power plant Wednesday, in what they termed a “moon shot” bid to save the coal sector by identifying economic uses for carbon emissions.
The ceremonial groundbreaking in Gillette, which unfolded amid a late April snowstorm, offered a glimmer of positive news for this embattled mining community, which has been rocked by a spate of layoffs at local coal mines in recent weeks.
Officials presented the test center, where teams of scientists will compete to turn carbon emissions into economic products, as the cure to coal’s ills.
“This project, it’s technological, it’s innovative, it’s world changing, potentially money making, but it’s really about dispensing hope,” said Mike Easley, CEO of the Powder River Energy Corp. and one of the project’s principal proponents. “Wyoming, Campbell County, Gillette, rural America, needs that hope dispensed.”
The $21 million Integrated Test Center will be built adjacent to Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Dry Fork Station, one of the newest coal-fired plants in America. Teams of scientists will compete there to win a $10 million purse from the X-Prize Foundation, a non-profit organization that helped launch the private space industry, among other initiatives. The winner will take the greatest volume of carbon from the plant’s emission stream and turn it into a product with the greatest value.
Mead sought to frame the center as evidence Wyoming could help determine the future of the coal industry, saying the state would not sit idly by as federal officials imposed new environmental regulations.
The ultimate hope, the governor said, it to turn what is now considered a liability into an asset.
“We’re looking for a game-changer for the world,” the governor said.
The endeavor’s success is far from assured, however. Experts note the market for carbon products like soft drinks, fertilizer and ethanol accounts for only a small fraction of global carbon emissions.
And the economic incentive for carbon utilization wanes, they note, as utilities continue to shutter coal-fired units.
Even if it does succeed, the project represents a long-term solution to coal’s present woes. Some 120 teams have expressed interest in participating in the competition. They will be reduced to five, who will ultimately compete for the prize in 2019. X-Prize officials said they expect the prize will be awarded in 2020.
Yet many speakers Wednesday noted the possibility of altering the public perception of coal.
“We don’t know what is going to happen out of this, but it is a promise of potential too good to not turn over that rock,” said Jim Spiers, vice president at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
The test center represents the crux of Wyoming’s response to mounting concerns over climate change. Mead, while stopping short of acknowledging a human contribution to a warming planet, has said the state needs to address changing market conditions born from worries over global warming.
To that end, Wyoming will contribute $15 million to the $21 million facility.
Paul Sukut, Basin Electric CEO, recalled remarks made by Mead to utility executives last year, noting that the governor said the time to argue over climate science was over.
“We got to do something about this. It’s time. Whether we agree with the science or not,” Sukut recalled Mead saying. “This project is so important for coal in this country and in the world, I cannot impress upon everyone here how it important it is.”