It’s a mixture you wouldn’t usually think of: black suits, pop country music, Japanese officials and the slight smell of manure. All these things came together at the CAM-PLEX event center in Gillette, Wyo., on Sept. 21 for a discussion about coal.
The state of Wyoming and the island country of Japan are working out the details of a coal-centered relationship. A little over a year ago, the two signed a memorandum of understanding about a partnership that would do two things: find a way to export Wyoming coal to Japan and work on carbon capture technologies to clean up coal-burning power plants.
Last month, officials came together at the CAM-PLEX to work out the details.
“Coal is a valuable, valuable resource and its value needs to be recognized,” Wyoming Governor Matt Mead said in an opening speech.
The memorandum of understanding was signed by both Mead and Osamu Tsukamoto; the president of a company called JCOAL. The government-mandated company is Japan’s coal energy center, which promoting the use of coal and carbon capture technology.
In general, Wyoming wants new markets for its coal as the U.S. demand shrinks. Meanwhile, Japan is looking towards coal after the Fukushima meltdown following the 2011 tsunami. The meltdown caused public opinion to turn against nuclear power and prompted the shutdown of many plants.
But getting coal to Japan faces a big hurdle that just got a lot bigger: Washington state. In late September, regulators there denied a key permit for a coal export terminal. They found that the environmental risk of transporting, storing and shipping the coal out of the proposed port was too great.
“After extensive study and deliberation, I am denying Millennium’s proposed coal export project,” Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a statement. “There are simply too many unavoidable and negative environmental impacts for the project to move forward.”
However, coal exports are only half of the agreement.
In the aftermath of the shut down of many of Japan’s nuclear plants, carbon emissions and energy costs have shot up in that country, according to the International Energy Agency. Moreover Japan is still trying to meet its goals for the Paris Climate Accord.
The island is investing in renewables, but in the near term, renewables won’t be enough.
“The bottom line is, to stabilize their grid, they’re going to need something else,” said Rob Godby, a University of Wyoming energy economist.
To help fill the energy gap where its nuclear once was, Godby said Japan is working to build efficient, carbon-capturing, coal-burning power plants. But there’s a problem:
“They’re just a much more finicky, potentially a much more difficult form of technology to manage and to keep running,” he said. “And so all of these things mean that they’re planning on building a very high-cost technology. “
So, Japan is collaborating with Wyoming to find ways to more cheaply capture carbon. And the centerpiece of Wyoming’s efforts is the Integrated Test Center, currently under construction outside Gillette.
I saw the coal-fired Dry Fork power plant, which is going to be immediately adjacent to the ITC. Then I saw the gravel pads and construction workers installing what would become utility hookups under those pads.
When I asked about where the buildings would be for the scientists to do tests, Beggar explained that they wouldn’t be building any.
“Kind of the western way to describe it is think of an RV park for technologies,” he said, laughing.
There was a side building where Beggar said researchers could congregate, warm up, store their things and go to the bathroom. Otherwise, Beggar said these open spaces gave researchers maximum flexibility, allowing them to bring in any structures they wanted to set up next to the power plant. Once there, they’ll have access to coal emissions vented from Dry Fork, which they can use to try and capture the carbon and turn it into a marketable product.
“And so the cool and the exciting thing about JCOAL is there could be a really good overlap between technology development and export opportunity,” Jason Beggar said. “Come here, test the coal here so you don’t have to ship it to Japan. If you find something that works really well, well then they could say hey, we’re going to bolt this onto our power plants; we’re going to buy millions of tons of Wyoming coal.”
Governor Mead is a big proponent of Wyoming innovation on carbon capture, too, but he welcomes help.
“It’s of great interest to us for other partners around the planet to be working on this very issue. I mean, and if they solve it. That’s great. It just needs to be solved,” he said.
Why? If carbon capture gets cheap, it could create a bigger market for Wyoming coal around the world. Most countries have signed on to the Paris Climate accord and need to reduce carbon emissions.
But carbon capture has an investment problem.
“That is the hurdle,” Godby said. “The bottom line is, we’re off to a late start, and we’ve got a lot of ground to make up if we’re going to continue to use things like coal or natural gas.”
Despite these challenges, Godby sees the potential in the Wyoming/Japan partnership. He says any headway the team makes could be a big deal.
“It’s not going to solve all of our problems, but it’s one opportunity that we should probably try to take advantage of, if it materializes.”
What needs to materialize, for much of this to work, is that coal export terminal. The company behind the Washington state terminal says it will fight the state’s decision. And that fight will have support from coal country, Japanese officials and Wyoming governor Matt Mead.
Back in Gillette, he told the crowd, “We know we must continue to develop coal not only for Wyoming and the U.S., but for the world.”
HanaSara Ito provided translation for the audio version of this story. Ito is a teacher based in Tokyo, Japan.
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