Compared to the large metropolitan areas found in and around Washington, D.C., Gillette is a pretty small fish. But there’s nothing small-time about carbon research happening here.

That was one of the observations of one of a top U.S. Department of Energy official when he toured the Dry Fork Station power plant, the connected Integrated Test Center and the nearby CarbonSAFE test well site Wednesday afternoon.

“They have just a fantastic setup to test (carbon capture) technology,” said Steven Winberg, assistant secretary of fossil energy at the DOE. “Coal is not going to go away anytime soon, but what we need to work on is the next generation of coal-fired power plants.”

Despite a trend over the past few years to retire older coal-fired plants and with no new ones planned anytime soon, Winberg said he’s confident there will be another level of coal-generated electricity. The research happening at the ITC and Dry Fork Station is critical to helping make that happen, he said.

He also touted a new federal initiative called Coal FIRST (flexible, innovative, resilient, small and transformative). His office and the DOE are funding research to develop ways to not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants, but to develop generation technology that has no emissions.

“If we’re going to have an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy in the United States, how do we continue to use coal and use it in a way that’s zero emission?” Winberg said. “We’re marching forward (toward that goal) as aggressively as we can.”

He said he hopes the United States will be in a position to demonstrate that technology in another five to six years. He also offered some encouragement to the coal mine workers of the Powder River Basin who have been shaken by recent bankruptcies, reduced production and overall industry insecurity.

“We are not on our last generation of anything,” Winberg said. “With American ingenuity and our ability to innovate, we can continue to use all of the natural resources we have.”

The assistant secretary’s enthusiasm for the American work ethic was echoed by U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, a longtime Gillette resident. He accompanied Winberg on his tour Wednesday.

The work being done in Wyoming and Campbell County is getting the attention of high-level federal officials and is putting the Cowboy State near the top of the carbon research discussion, Enzi said.

“Today is really special, because it’s really nice to have somebody who is knowledgable about power plants to an extreme degree come here,” he said, referring to Winberg’s expertise in the energy industry.

Before his federal appointment, Winberg spent nearly 40 years working in the energy industry, including as an engineer working on coal-fired utility boilers.

As Campbell County works to build its reputation as the Energy Capital of the Nation to Carbon Research Capital, Winberg said he believes that can happen.

“I think the potential is great,” he said. “You have wide open space, you have a community that wants to bring in this type of research and development. In a tiny community like Gillette there’s a lot of high-quality coal.”

Export is key

Getting that high-quality coal to customers around the world is not only a high priority for Wyoming, it’s near the top of the DOE’s to-do list as well, Winberg said. Opening a West Coast coal terminal to serve the Asian markets in particular is something that needs to happen as quickly as possible, he said.

“The world is going to continue to burn coal and the United States has some of the highest quality coal in the world,” he said. “We can be shipping coal out of this region over to the Asian Pacific area if we had a coal export terminal on the West Coast.”

As for what his office and the Trump administration can do to help make that happen, Winberg said the wheels are already in motion. The president has already issued an executive order that, in part, calls for an evaluation of possible locations for West terminals for coal and liquid natural gas.

“Part of the task we have is to do a study and we’re working on it right now,” he said.

While the brouhaha over the Millennium Bulk Terminal, which has been blocked by Washington state officials, has made national headlines, that’s not the only option, Enzi said.

He also said that other countries that rely on coal power don’t have some of the luxuries that the United States has, which gives us more opportunities to diversify our energy generation.

“Every country doesn’t have the same options and space we have,” he said. “Japan is interested in the research here (at the ITC) because they don’t have the options for wind and solar (because of geography), but coal-fired can work there.”

Tour continues

Winberg’s three-day energy-focused tour through the Cowboy State continues Thursday with a tour of Peabody Energy Corp.’s North Antelope Rochelle mine near Wright. On Friday, he’ll be in Laramie at the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, where he’ll get a more in-depth look at the research happening at UW, including some of the core samples taken earlier this year from the CarbonSAFE test well near Dry Fork Station.

That research hopes to prove there’s potential for commercial-scale CO2 sequestration under the PRB.

While Winberg gets good information from experts in Washington, D.C., he said there’s no substitute for seeing things for himself.

“I learn a lot when I’m outside of Washington talking to real people who do real work,” he said. “I enjoy that a lot.”

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