ITC gets ready for new tenants this spring, looks toward new future of fossil fuels
From Highway 59, the fenced-in scoria lot and adjoining modular building at the base of Basin Electric’s Dry Fork Station north of Gillette blends into the background, squeezed between the sprawling, open pit coal mines that dot the high plains surrounding Campbell County. These grounds are home to the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC), which many in the state, including Gov. Mark Gordon, hope will put Wyoming on the frontlines of clean coal and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies.
Since officially opening in May 2018, the ITC has thus far sat idle until this past January, when Colorado-based TDA Research officially moved its equipment onto the grounds to test technologies for keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Even now, the trailer-size, square steel box on a far corner of the lot is set up to be monitored from headquarters back in Wheat Ridge, and currently, there are no full-time staff on site, save for periodic visits from TDA Senior Scientist Dave Gribble and crew, who were in town briefly this winter to set up their equipment and run a few tests.
If he doesn’t hear from them, Wyoming Infrastructure Authority Executive Director Jason Begger said, he assumes that everything is going well.
Otherwise, it’s a waiting game with a sliding schedule to see which of the prospective tenants turn up next, Begger said. If all goes as planned, UCLA’s Carbon Upcycling team will be here by the second week of March. The California-based team is testing carbon building materials as one of five teams competing for NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize. None of the other four teams from India, China, Scotland and Ithaca, New York, are currently on site. The teams are competing for a first prize of $7.5 million – with additional prizes up to $20 million – to develop the best breakthrough technologies to convert C02 emissions into products like building materials, alternative fuels or other usable goods.
The contest deadline was extended an additional year due to complexities with funding and permitting issues across countries and states. Other variables, such as the coronavirus have likewise introduced a new wrinkle, Begger said, with the Suzhou-based Chinese team currently under quarantine.
“Some of this stuff is beyond our control,” Begger said, noting the teams all have to be here soon to meet the requisite 2,000 operational hours (or 83 days) of data per competition guidelines. Once the teams arrive this spring, Begger foresees a busy year moving forward in the event that some of the teams wish to remain on beyond the June competition deadline.
Otherwise, there are more tenants on the way, perhaps still a year or two out, including the Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER), JCOAL/Kawasaki Heavy Industry, and most recently, Membrane Technology and Research, Inc. (MTR), which hope to test their pilot projects by tapping into one of the eight test sites across the roughly 6- to 8-acre lot.
The ITC has its selling points to attract these various groups, Begger noted, in a space that he considers the graduate school for promising carbon technoloeis. The ITC also has a capacity of 385 megawatts, with eight test sites across the roughly 8-acre spread, each with 20 megawatts.
“The ITC affords researchers a rare opportunity to test their technologies on a large scale outside of their small labs, which is a big draw,” he said, noting that typically, researchers are limited to about 1.5 megawatts, including the Department of Energy’s flagship facility, the National Carbon Capture Center, in Alabama.
This on top of the rail, oil and natural gas pipelines, world-class fabrication shops and other infrastructure makes Campbell County a lucrative spot to test and develop new carbon technologies, Begger said. Another draw he said is a business-friendly state with limited regulations and support from state regulatory agencies and a governor who seems to be willing to put his money where his mouth is.
Having recently returned from Legislature, Begger is encouraged by Gordon’s proposed figure in the budget of around $28 million for carbon research to be distributed in various pots.
“Timing is important,” he said. “The legislature recognized that and appropriated the funds and recognized the expediency of doing that.”
Right now, he noted, is the time to double down.
More than being a money maker, Begger and others see Wyoming as playing a leading role in a new generation of energy innovation, which as he pointed out, is continually evolving whether you like it or not. Given the slagging demand for coal and a national energy market driven by clean energy and coal, he sees the real prize in the future and mission of a new generation and use for the state’s abundant natural resources: fuels
He and his group plan to continue rolling out the carbon message and trying to sell the value proposition of the ITC to other carbon developers across state lines, particularly to companies choked by regulation in states like California, and continuing to partner with the University of North Dakota who is a good decade ahead of the Cowboy State.
“We have all of the infrastructure that you’re not going to find anywhere else,” Begger said, “and we will welcome them with open arms.”
Others like former Campbell County Commissioner Mark Christensen, who was instrumental in establishing the framework for Campbell County’s long-term energy research and manufacturing plans, agrees.
“The ITC really is an opportunity for Campbell County and Wyoming to get their name out in the world of advanced carbon products and to show that Wyoming is serious about addressing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants,” Christensen said. “The markets have decided that CO2 is a problem, and regardless of our own beliefs on climate change, not addressing those concerns simply means we will watch our once-thriving market for coal and other fossil fuels continue to deteriorate.”
“I see the ITC as the first step,” Christensen said. “Our long-term success is going to depend on driving research on carbon products and carbon capture utilization and sequestration to Campbell County.”
Campbell County could lead the world in the development of these technologies, he added, but the county and state need to be willing to take some risk and buy into the long-term plan.
“Fossil fuels aren’t going to be going away anytime soon and anybody serious about climate change should recognize that as the developing world electrifies, they are going to go with what is cheap, reliable, and can be maintained in their remote part of the world,” he said. “This is fossil fuels-based generation and embracing CCUS technology is moving.”
He considers the ITC to be an exciting piece of the puzzle to not just have a conversation on CO2, but to find news uses for the CO2 produced.
Thus far, the message seems to be resonating with the announcement in March that the Wyoming ITC has received the 2020 Climate Partnership Award at the 2020 Climate Leadership Award in Detroit. The award recognizes the pioneering initiative that brings private and public leaders together to drive the next generation of clean energy technology in the heart of coal country.
Begger was happy to hear this news, which perhaps begins the next generation of fossil fuels in Campbell County.
When he scans the open pits and wind-scrabbled buttes he sees the future, not the past, and finds encouragement in meeting in the middle group, noting the solution is to join forces to get things done instead of fundraising off of conflict or sticking one’s head in the sand.
“When everyone is focused on solutions, not politics, it’s easier to get things done,” he said.