Partnerships Bring New Goals for Old Coal

Monday, December 16, 2019

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The development of a new pilot facility to advance alternative uses for coal is now a reality in Wyoming. Efforts by a combination of local business and economic advocates have resulted in approximately $3 million in state and federal grants to allow for construction to begin in 2020. The facility will provide the state’s first continuous operation capable of new coal conversion development. In a business environment valuing efficient and clean energy sources, the facility will position the state as a leader in alternative uses for coal.

Change Needed

Revenues from the coal industry have gone down significantly the past ten years and that trend will continue for the foreseeable future, said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED). 

“Wyoming must diversify our economy by finding new and profitable uses for coal and other natural resources to deliver a strong, growing and diverse economy in the years to come,” he said. “This project has the potential to transform not only Campbell County’s economy but for the state as well.”

The facility, named the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center or ACPIC, is a result of the collective efforts by several local business advocates and organizations. Christopherson said the original concept came from the desire to do more with what the area has. In meeting with the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources and others, the ECED determined building a facility to evaluate lab research at a larger scale would help ensure new manufacturing businesses with coal as their raw material. In 2016, a significant step forward came with a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council, slated for land purchase and facility construction. An ideal location was identified in Campbell County outside Gillette. The property, formerly the Fort Union coal mine, was under reclamation and the industrial portion of the mine was being repurposed into an industrial park coal mine. The ACPIC will be one tenant in the new Fort Union Industrial Park that has several existing buildings, a railroad loop and over 400 acres of subdivided land. Utilities were already present, supplied by the Powder River Energy Corporation (PRECorp). The final piece for the project came earlier this year with a $1.46 million grant from the Federal Economic Development Administration (EDA), which will allow for the purchase of the equipment necessary to make the pilot facility operational.  

Pilot Facility 

Christopherson, who managed the grant application process with the Wyoming Business Council and the EDA, said ACPIC will allow promising coal projects at the pilot and pre-commercial development stages to upscale and get to market.

“There’s been a significant amount of lab research on uses for coal over the years that have not proven to be commercially viable,” he said. “The whole point of this facility is to provide a place for pilot plants to test out that technology and determine which ones will make money.”

Plans for the facility include up to 4,000 square feet of offices and labs in which several tenants can set up equipment to test their technologies on a commercial scale. In general, Christopherson anticipates those operations could bring in 40 new jobs and $15 million in investments to the area, with the location offering several unique advantages.

“The property was ideal in terms of space and the close availability of Powder River Basin coal,” said Christopherson. “And with support from Gillette College, there is a local workforce, ready and knowledgeable in the coal industry.”   

Coal Diversification

There are lofty goals for ACPIC, according to Jeff Bumgarner, Vice President of Member Service at PRECorp and ECED Board President.

“We’re putting together building blocks for the Wyoming business environment,” he said. “It’s about diversifying and determining what else can be done with coal beyond existing markets.”

Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi stated the national focus in a recent press release announcing the EDA grant.

“I am hopeful that the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center will help Gillette and the surrounding areas create a sustainable future for coal and for our workers,” he said. “I am glad the Economic Development Administration is investing in this center, which will help companies advance technologies and use coal for new products and processes.”

Ready in 2020 

With the property closed on in early November, Christopherson said the next step is to have the architectural engineering contractor for facility design to be on board in February. All of which leads him to be hopeful the facility will open no later than early 2021 when prospective tenants can develop commercial businesses utilizing Powder River Basin coal. Some of the proposed projects interested in the ACPIC would use five to six million tons of coal per year when they reach commercial production, he said.

“While individually that may not seem like a lot to a state where coal shipments have dropped since 2008 from approximately 400 million tons to 300, the ACPIC vision is this facility will help string together many new processes using local coal to make a real difference in Wyoming’s economy.”

Powder River Energy Corporation (PRECorp) is known as northeastern Wyoming’s preferred energy provider. The nonprofit cooperative also works diligently with its member-owners to improve the communities it serves. PRECorp has developed powerful partnerships with private, public and nonprofit organizations. These collaborative efforts aim to strengthen communities and create a more diverse economy.

 

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