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Wanted: Carbon Capture Research Area At Wyoming Plant

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 7:48am
Mead Gruver, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Wyoming officials say they hope to hear back soon from power companies in the state willing to offer up space at a coal-fired power plant to host carbon-capture research for a proposed competition with a $10 million prize.

State officials met in late May with executives of three power companies that have coal-fired power plants in Wyoming. The utility officials said they'd get back with Gov. Matt Mead's office on the research-hosting proposal by early July, Mead adviser Rob Hurless said.

As of Friday, the governor's office hadn't heard yet from Rocky Mountain Power, Black Hills Corp. and Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Between them, the utilities wholly own or have a stake in nine coal-fired plants operating in the state.

"The state needs a volunteer — somebody that owns a coal plant to raise their hand and say, 'Yeah, we'd consider hosting that,' " Hurless said.

Wyoming is keenly interested in carbon-capture research because it supplies almost 40 percent of the nation's coal, far more than any other state.

Coal-fired electricity, while inexpensive, is the prime target for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say causes global warming. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed sweeping new rules with the goal of achieving a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions nationwide, compared to 2005 levels, by 2030.

State officials have been dreading any such federal move for at least a decade. Coal extracted from the Powder River Basin's vast surface mines is the pillar of Wyoming's economy.

Last winter, the Wyoming Legislature allocated $15 million to construct a test facility at a coal-fired power plant. Research teams would use the facility to compete for a $10 million carbon-capture XPrize competition proposed by Westminster, Colorado-based electricity wholesaler Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

"Wyoming has an abundance of coal, and we know we must find productive ways to put coal and its byproducts to use," Mead said in a statement Thursday. "We are showing leadership in supporting this kind of advanced research."

The winning team would demonstrate a way to both cost-effectively capture the power plant's carbon dioxide emissions and then put the greenhouse gas to a money-making use.

The $10 million Ansari X Prize sponsored by the Culver City, California-based X Prize Foundation inspired the first private manned spaceflight in 2004. The current $30 million Google Lunar Lander X Prize would go to the first private company to land a craft on the moon.

The X Prize Foundation has not yet approved the carbon-capture prize idea.

The real-world CO2 research lab isn't a simple proposal: Emissions would need to be captured from a power plant's smokestack and piped to at least five separate research bays, sort of like how technicians sample tailpipe emissions in states with mandatory automobile pollution testing.

At least one of the three electric utilities was still reviewing the research idea as of Friday.

"It's certainly not been taken off the table. But I haven't heard that any decision has been made," said Mary Miller, spokeswoman for Bismarck, North Dakota-based Basin Electric, which has majority and minority ownership of two coal-fired plants in Wyoming.

One or two research bays at the facility would be reserved for University of Wyoming scientists.

To date, carbon-capture technology remains far too expensive to make coal an economical source of low-greenhouse-gas energy. Also, the captured CO2 needs to be put somewhere on a massive scale — the second formidable part of the prize challenge.

"It's not stripping a little bit out and mixing it with Coke syrup to make Coke," Hurless said.

Large volumes of industrial byproduct carbon dioxide have found recent use in Wyoming oil fields. Companies pump the gas underground to pressurize formations and boost oil production.

The technique probably wouldn't qualify under the prize rules because not every coal-fired power plant has an oil field nearby, Hurless said.

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