Editor’s note: This is the first in a weeklong series of articles on the local and regional energy sector titled “Big Bang: The boom and bust energy industry.”
SHERIDAN — As the executive director of regional economic development group Forward Sheridan, Jay Stender spends much of his time trying to diversify an economy notorious for surging and sputtering alongside changes in the national coal market.
While his organization has seen several successes in recent years including the introduction of new tech jobs to the area and a resurgence of light manufacturing, Stender remains uninterested in writing off coal as an important component of the area’s economy.
Despite its role as a leading contributor of environmental contaminants and an ever-expanding litany of economic hurdles that stand in the way of its use, Stender believes coal will remain an integral component of energy production in the United States for many years to come.
He’s not alone in his thinking.
A highly abundant natural resource — the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates the United States has enough recoverable coal to last for approximately 200 years based on current production levels — coal remains an inexpensive way to power towns and cities across the country.
And a growing body of research suggests that by capturing dangerous emissions and putting them to use in other energy production processes or by storing them in underground geological formations, the environmentally damaging effects of coal can be mitigated while making the resource newly competitive against other energy sources which are generally considered to be cleaner.
While black diamond has come under heavy fire from politicians, environmental regulators and the public alike in recent years, Stender believes the Cowboy State has positioned itself well to help change the way people think about the resource responsible for generating about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Stender’s vision — and the vision of researchers and lawmakers across Wyoming — is a world in which advanced technologies allow for the continued use of coal in a way that causes minimal environmental damage and maximum economic benefits.
“Wyoming and the western states should really be carrying that message to those who are concerned about (national energy policy),” he said.
And even in the face of an uphill trek against mounting hostility toward coal, clean coal experts across the state say theirs is a battle worth fighting.
The challenge is getting everyone else to listen.
Budding research and economic constraints
Coal’s emissions of environmental contaminants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, heavy metals and acid gases presents a serious stumbling block on the road to a future of expanded use.
Mounting concerns over air quality and climate change have coal-fired power plants facing increased scrutiny in communities across the country, but researchers in Wyoming maintain that coal can indeed be used in an environmentally responsible manner.
One major concern, however, is cost and the lack of a coherent national vision when it comes to the future of energy production.
While generally a popular concept, the construction and operation of clean-burning power plants is prohibitively expensive given the availability of existing technologies.
What’s more, a new source performance standard of carbon dioxide emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency and the potential for cap-and-trade carbon emissions programs makes the construction of new plants an even less attractive option for domestic producers of electricity.
It’s a frustrating state of affairs for Benjamin Phillips, president of Utah-based Emery Energy.
While Phillips sees reason to be optimistic about the future of clean-coal research in Wyoming, he believes political will is lacking in much of the rest of the country.
“From our perspective, the state of Wyoming has been appropriately and aggressively funding coal research,” he recently told The Sheridan Press. “The U.S. Department of Energy, on the other hand, their charters and mission often switch as a function of the administration, making it difficult to extract longer-term research value.”
Emery Energy is one of several companies currently receiving funding from Wyoming’s Advanced Conversion Technologies Research Account.
A task force of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources makes annual recommendations to the state Legislature on conversion projects worthy of public funding.
During the last round of funding midway through 2012, about $11 million was distributed to the planners of several initiatives.
Projects funded by the account include research into coal gasificiation, carbon capture and sequestration and coal-to-liquid conversion among other technologies.
From his perspective, Phillips said that kind of research is essential in stemming the tide of public opinion against the use of coal.
“The negative perception (of coal) is there and it needs to be overcome,” he said. “It needs to be overcome with, in our view, not only strong educational backgrounds but also projects that include carbon capture and carbon management.”
‘People just rely on buzzwords’
Researchers across Wyoming insist that while expensive, clean coal initiatives are a worthwhile investment. They reason that research into new technologies will allow the United States to become more energy self-sufficient while stabilizing prices for consumers.
Falling natural gas prices made possible by hydraulic fracturing have hurt coal prices in recent months, but Phillips said changes in other markets don’t diminish the importance of continued investment in coal.
“We think the demand for natural gas will increase, hence pricing will go up,” he said. “And if that’s the case, (coal) gasification will become more financially attractive.”
Additionally, he sees coal as a long-term and price-predictable compliment to resources such as natural gas.
Other researchers and economic development experts agree, saying the national conversation on coal has largely been hijacked by ideologues on both sides of the debate.
Stender said that in order for coal research to win over new followers, proponents of the resource must be willing to acknowledge its shortcomings. Prime among them: its negative effects on air quality and contribution to global climate change.
“Those are realities,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with those issues.”
But in acknowledging those issues, coal proponents must make the case that the resource can indeed be used in a way that avoids unnecessary environmental degradation.
Several researchers said the general population, however, seems largely unaware of that possibility.
“People just rely on buzzwords,” said Vijay Sethi, vice president of energy production and generation at the Western Research Institute.
Housed on the campus of the University of Wyoming, WRI is a multi-million dollar nonprofit research institute dedicated primarily to developing and testing new energy production technologies.
As the point person on several advanced coal conversion projects, Sethi said special interest groups have largely succeed in convincing an energy-illiterate population that coal is necessarily dirtier and more harmful to the environment than other forms of energy production.
He said that while the continued development of renewable energy sources is no doubt essential, economic and environmental factors alike necessitate a heightened national awareness of and investment in coal.
And when it comes to crafting that perception, the industry itself has an important role to play in convincing the public they’re serious.
“In part it’s maybe our fault too,” Sethi said. “When we say ‘clean coal,’ we mean ‘clean coal.’”