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Wyoming appropriates $5M for carbon capture pilot project to help coal sector

With one western coal producer expected to file for bankruptcy within weeks and others reducing their 2019 output, Wyoming plans to invest $5 million into a project intended to help its struggling coal sector.

Republican Gov. Mark Gordon signed a supplemental budget bill last month that included $5 million in matching funds to build a "pilot project utilizing advanced coal-based generated technology" that captures at least 75% of carbon emissions from a 5-MW or more coal-fired power plant, according to an enrolled version of the bill.

In a Feb. 26 letter to the state legislature, Gordon praised lawmakers for "seeing the wisdom" of investing in a carbon capture pilot project "allowing Wyoming to continue to lead in developing new ways to use coal and reduce carbon emissions."

The University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources will draft a request for proposals for the project, and the university's Energy Resources Council will make the selection, said Mark Northam, executive director of the school of energy resources. That request is expected to be sent out by June.

"That's, I think, an indication that the state still believes that coal is not going to just disappear — that there are still technology solutions," he said.

Cost has been a major obstacle to carbon capture's commercialization, but advocates continue to push for its development as a means to help combat climate change or provide a cleaner way to continue burning fossil fuels.

"Everybody recognizes that cost is a barrier," Northam said. "So, one of the purposes of this is to test new technologies that would reduce the cost of that part of the process, which is capturing the concentrated stream of CO2."

Current coal plants were not built with carbon capture in mind, so the systems are bolted to the generators, said Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. If new plants are constructed with an integrated carbon capture system, there could be cost-saving efficiencies.

"We want to see another 400 or 500 coal plants constructed over time as these existing ones reach the end of their usable lifespan," Begger said.

Powder River Basin miners operate "very high volume, low margin businesses" and need stable domestic customers as well as certain production levels to warrant continued investment in the operations.

"I think anything that we can do to increase the domestic use of coal and expand that market is what's going to help these suppliers the most," Begger said. "At the end of the day, the reason why the state of Wyoming is making all of these carbon investments is for the long-term benefit and health and hopefully future of the industry within the state."

Over the last few years, the university has worked with ITEA spa, an Italy-based company developing a "flameless, pressurized oxy-combustion" technology to capture emissions from burning coal and plans to propose the concept for consideration for the state's $5 million in matching funding, Northam said. The method introduces a pure stream of oxygen into a combustion chamber with coal. The chamber's temperature is then increased, the coal is oxidized and a nearly pure stream of carbon dioxide and water is emitted.

He added that while the system he has worked on includes other costs, such as an air separation unit, it could still potentially be less expensive than building a more traditional carbon capture unit to attach to an existing plant.

"Ultimately, we're looking at changing the economics of the whole process," Northam said.

Though the selected project will not be immediately ready for the commercial market at the 5-MW level, he said, it may help show that emerging technology works on the pilot scale. Northam, who has worked on carbon capture and storage development since the early 1990s, said the clock is ticking on development to ensure the world has not wasted "billions of dollars on something we just don't have the will to implement."

"If there's not a successful demonstration of some pieces of this technology at-scale in the coming years, let's say maybe even a decade, then I think we will lose opportunities to actually deploy it," he said. "... we need to take what we know works or what we believe works and get it out into the commercial environment and show that we can make it work, or it's going to die on the vine."