A solution to keep coal going in Wyoming

The Dry Fork Station and the Integrated Test Center. (Image courtesy of the ITC, Facebook).

As seven US-based coal companies went broke between 2018 and 2019 and the short-term outlook for the black mineral in terms of demand and profitability looks bleak according to Moody’s Investor Services, the state of Wyoming is supporting an innovative solution whose goal is to provide an environmentally friendlier way to continue exploiting the fossil fuel.

The project is called the Integrated Test Center and it is very close to being opened at the 385-megawatt Dry Fork Station operated by Basin Electric Power Cooperative. The plant is located near the city of Gillette and it processes sub-bituminous coal from Western Fuels’ Dry Fork mine.

Wyoming’s reserves add up to approximately 1.27 trillion tonnes of coal

The Integrated Test Center or ITC provides space for researchers to test, in a real-life setting, carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies using 20 MW of actual coal-based flue gas, which is a combination of ambient air, water vapor and carbon dioxide. This is about 5% of the total flue gas emitted at Dry Fork.

The way it works is that a steel duct connects the plant’s gas flue to the ITC. Technology positioned inside the plant’s exhaust flue allows researchers to divert flue gas to their testing facility when and as needed, where carbon dioxide molecules can be pulled and utilized.

The idea is for them to come up with solutions to use the captured CO2 for other purposes such as producing fertilizers, fish food, building materials such as concrete, and plastic products. 

“If we are going to meet the growing demand for clean, reliable energy, there is no doubt carbon sequestration and advances in coal technology will need to be a part of our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Matt Micheli, who is the energy and natural resources partner at the law firm Holland & Hart in Cheyenne and who has been keeping a close eye on the project.

“There is nearly universal support for these efforts in Wyoming. Currently, Wyoming produces more than 40% of the nation’s thermal coal. This coal production provides high-paying jobs for our Wyoming families and pays for our schools, our roads and our state and local government. Many of our communities rely almost entirely on coal production,” Micheli told MINING.com.

Coal by the numbers

The ITC is a +$20 million public-private undertaking that has funding from the Wyoming State Legislature, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Wyoming is the state that leads coal production for electricity generation. It is home to the US’ top 10 producing coal mines, all of them located in the Powder River Basin. Total output from the region was 294 million tonnes in 2018, from a nationwide total of 686 million tonnes.

Despite the large numbers, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that last year, only 623 million tonnes of coal were consumed, which represents a 42% decline since its peak in 2005 and the fifth straight annual decline. 

Coal’s share of electricity generation was 28% last year, down from 48% in 2008. The EIA also forecasts that the fuel’s cut in the energy mix will be 25% this year and 22% in 2020.

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