Wyoming provides nearly 40 percent of the coal we consume in the United States, but demand for coal-fired electricity is shrinking in response to a variety of factors – including low natural gas prices and environmental regulations aimed at slowing climate change.
Decreased demand for coal, as well as low oil prices, is hurting the state’s bottom line. As Wyoming Public Radio reported last week, Gov. Matt Mead announced that lower-than-expected energy revenues will require the state to cut up to $200 million dollars from its budget.
Wyoming wants to keep its coal on the market, regardless of what it is used for.
As global pressure to address climate change mounts, researchers and policymakers in the state and in coal producing regions all over the world are scrambling to figure out what to do with coal other than burning it.
I recently traveled to China with a group of Wyoming advocates that have been working to encourage collaboration between the U.S. and China on clean coal for over a decade. David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, did acknowledge that energy generation in the U.S. is shifting towards natural gas and renewables.
“But it is unrealistic to think that in the process, we’re going to leave coal behind. Coal will continue to be a mainstream of the modern industrial economy the world over,” Wendt said.
On this day, we were crowded around an intricate model energy park at a demonstration plant owned by a Chinese coal company called the Shanxi Lu’An Mining Group. Mini pumpjacks bobbed up and down, highlighted by strings of flashing lights. A smokestack rose up in the middle, ringed by tiny trees and streets. The model was strangely doll-house like, and so intricate that it was difficult to tell what we were looking at.
Through our translator, a tour guide explained that this massive complex was a coal to liquids demonstration facility. The Lu’an Group was using this project to experiment with all kinds of new technology to make coal conversion more efficient and less polluting. Whatever works and is cost effective will likely get incorporated into a much larger, yet-to-be built commercial venture.
“It is quite an incredible demonstration facility. I’ve not seen anything like this anywhere,” Ben Yamagata, the Executive Director of the Coal Utilization Research Council and a member of our group, said.
But cleaning up coal conversion is no easy task. Gasification is generally the first step in converting coal into liquids like diesel and other products like lubricants, wax, and ammonia. But, the process uses tons of water and releases massive amounts of CO2. I asked our tour guide what the Lu’an Group was doing to clean up gasification. He said they were experimenting with recycling wastewater and using the CO2 in-house rather than emit it into the atmosphere.
According to the Department of Energy, China has 189 gasification plants and projects in operation or under construction, while the U.S. has 23. In its database, DOE emphasizes that it doesn’t necessarily represent all projects or contain accurate details of those projects listed. But clearly, China is converting coal to other materials on a large scale.
So Wyoming, as the largest coal producing state in the U.S., is looking to collaborate with China, the world’s largest coal producing country, on how to make coal into products from tennis rackets to socks.
“I would bet that nearly every American has got one item of clothing in their closet at least that started out as Chinese coal,” Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources said.
Northam was also on the China trip and spoke at the 5th annual Low Carbon Summit in Shanxi province, China’s main coal producing region. These events are all part of a much broader collaboration on clean coal technology nation-wide as well as internationally, including countries like Australia. Joint research projects and university exchanges are all underscored with urgency as global pressure builds to address climate change.
But for Wyoming, this push towards studying coal conversion isn’t just about cleaning it up.
“From our point of view, this is about preserving the market for coal,” Northam said.
Northam took me to UW’s advanced coal technology lab to explain how they are “re-engineering” the process to make coal conversion cleaner. The glass-enclosed lab is bright, shiny, and partially paid for by coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.
“Instead of combusting the coal, we’re refining the coal so we don’t go through that CO2 pathway in the first place,” Northam explained.
Students and researchers here are experimenting with various conditions and catalysts to draw materials out of CO2 without burning it. But is it possible to bring this technology to a commercial scale?
“So, the ideal solution would be to take all of that carbon, deliberately manage it and to make products so you have zero emissions of CO2. Of course that may be a dream but we certainly want to move towards that dream,” Northam’s colleague, Richard Horner told me.
Horner believes that carbon waste could be used to make products like tennis rackets, airplanes, and water filters. As for Northam’s own vision for Wyoming’s coal future?
“Twenty years from now, I would say fewer mines, more industry, and a lot more manufacturing. The rail cars full of [coal-related] products rather than coal cars hauling lumps of coal to power plants.”
Wyoming is fighting hard to keep its coal on the market in the future, no matter the form. Why? Because, according to Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, revenue from coal accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the state’s budget.