The state of Wyoming recently selected Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Dry Fork Station in Gillette as the site of a new research facility to develop, in part, commercial products from recovered carbon dioxide.
Efforts at the Integrated Test Center (ITC) could help electric utilities preserve coal as a viable and affordable fuel source for their generation fleets.
Mike Easley has been CEO of Powder River Energy Corp. (PRECorp), a distribution co-op in Sundance, Wyo., since 2000, and he has championed the project in Wyoming and nationally. His efforts helped win state funding and build support from NRECA, Basin Electric (G&T), headquartered in Bismarck, N.D., and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, headquartered in Westminster, Colo.
Since 1983, Easley, 55, has worked as an electrical engineer for generation and transmission cooperatives headquartered in Oklahoma and Michigan and for a selfgenerating distribution cooperative in Alaska. He has served on the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority since 2004 and is currently the authority’s chairman.
RE Magazine recently talked with Easley about the ITC and its importance to electric cooperatives.
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RE Magazine: Given Wyoming’s role as the nation’s leading coal producer, how important is research on the scale of the ITC to preserving the viability of coal as a fuel source?
Easley: The research is extremely important because it provides hope. The Environmental Protection Agency’s [EPA] Clean Power Plan could mean a potential reduction of production and demand for Wyoming coal of 100 million tons a year. That’s a huge number. This project makes it clear that people are working on the issue and are providing opportunities to keep Wyoming’s existing coal fleet and related industries operational and economically viable for as long as possible.
I serve on the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, appointed by the governor. The Powder River Energy Corp. board supports my work there because PRECorp’s strategic goals are so closely aligned with the state’s strategy and economy. It’s essential that the talent within the electric cooperative network be involved in this work because we play such major roles in rural development and economic stability in our communities.
It takes a real commitment to pursue and develop projects like this, but they can have significant impact on the future of our industry and our communities.
RE Magazine: What is it about Dry Fork Station that makes it so suitable for this research?
Mike Easley: The Dry Fork plant has only been operating since 2011, and its emissions profile is very clean. From a technical perspective, the emissions are suitable for carbon capture technology research. We have to find ways to make coal generation more acceptable, and that can’t happen soon enough. Wyoming has been working on this since 2013, and while it lines up well with EPA’s recent efforts to implement its Clean Power Plan, we’ve been pursuing this goal for more than two years.
RE Magazine: What key technologies do you see resulting from this research, both near term and long term? And how do you see the ITC being used to take these advances from the lab and into the marketplace?
Easley: The near-term potential is capturing carbon dioxide for use in enhanced oil recovery because it helps to deal with the emissions from existing plants by developing a product useful in the oil-production supply chain.
The mid-term possibilities could focus on ways to develop products from emissions more efficiently. Internationally, there are currently several carbon capture projects under way, including an amine-based solvent process. Those represent very high penalties on coal-based energy production because they require so much energy.
For the long term, new products developed from carbon conversion processes may include work conducted as part of the [$20 million Carbon] XPRIZE [competition]. Having competitive researchers among the first tenants at ITC could provide high visibility and lead to long-term solutions for carbon conversion and utilization.
The challenge will be getting these new technologies through the so-called “Valley of Death.” Conducting research under real power plant conditions is likely to move these projects along faster because it will provide practical proof of the technology and processes. That could shorten the timeframe between promising technology and true commercialization. Having an integrated test center and engaged operators aligning the industry and new technology with entrepreneurs and investors capable of bringing it to market will potentially accelerate their commercialization.
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RE Magazine: With some insisting that the “coal age” is over, why is it important that electric coops take a leadership role in preserving the viability of the industry?
Easley: Co-ops will play an absolutely critical role in finding out how to utilize CO2 in part because our portfolios are highly invested in coal-based generation. The supply chain for coal production and distribution is still high profile in many states where electric co-ops are an integral part of the rural economy.
Consumers are going to be the ones ultimately impacted by additional costs related to coal use or offset by the development of clean coal technologies. Coal as a natural and domestic resource still has a future. Although its role and portfolio percentage may change, it will still be an important part of the nation’s energy security.
Fuel diversity is still a hedge against price volatility. That means coal will be an important part of the energy mix because co-ops and others in the industry are still committed to having multiple sources of fuel supply.
RE Magazine: How do you see the work of the ITC growing, and will electric cooperatives have a continuing role in helping that happen?
Easley: With Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Basin Electric Power Cooperative stepping up, I would hope this would spur interest throughout Co-op Nation to support NRECA in providing additional resources for this effort. This as an opportunity for the industry to get involved so that this project is sustainable beyond the G&Ts’ and the state of Wyoming’s initial investment. When people see what we are doing, they will want to be a part of it.
In 2013, Wyoming released a statement on its energy plan, but instead of offering a policy, Gov. Matt Mead offered an energy strategy. The ITC is one of those initiatives that came out of that strategy. Part of the strategic thinking in that plan was having the co-op network as an aligned and invested partner. That’s a key step in ensuring that all energy interests are pulling in the same direction. Hopefully, Gov. Mead’s work with electric co-ops will be a compelling example that motivates other co-op interests to get behind the ITC or similar ventures that potentially serve our interests.
RE Magazine: What is the overall value to the electric cooperative community of these types of projects?
Easley: It’s very easy to look at the increased costs related to a shift away from coal as a source of generation toward renewables and the fuel risks associated with limited sourcing. Being able to keep our coal fleet functioning as a source of reliable and affordable energy is something everybody understands. From a qualitative standpoint, providing opportunities for CO2 use and being proactive in developing the technology is one of the things that co-ops do best.
RE Magazine: Since CO2 is a global concern, do you think that work done at the ITC could lead to real game changing, cost-effective technology? And where do you think global industry could be 25 years from now with effective research?
Easley: The XPRIZE is a global competition designed to promote and exchange technology. With their involvement as a premier tenant, the ITC could extend a global invitation to researchers and others to consider Wyoming and Co-op Nation facilities as a destination where practical research can be conducted. The sweet spot will be for coal to still be a part of the energy mix a quarter century from now, still benefiting the global economy.