The Electricity Market is Souring on Coal. Can Innovation Save Wyoming's Mines?
January 15, 2023 - At the edge of a field in Laramie stands a little house with big prospects.
The house doesn’t look like much. It’s the size of a shed, clad in slate gray brick, outfitted with a generic front door and a pair of narrow windows. A few feet of gravel separate it from its twin, identical except for a single, fundamental difference.
One of the houses is made of coal.
The researchers behind its atypical brickwork hope their 10-by-14-foot experiment will give rise to a new frontier for construction — and a new dawn for coal.
“You can actually build a whole house, or a whole building, with just coal-based products,” said Trina Pfeiffer, director of the center for carbon capture and conversion at the University of Wyoming. In addition to coal-char bricks, she said, her team has come up with ways to convert coal into a long list of structural staples, including mortar, plaster, roofing and insulation.
Right now, the house’s exterior walls are its claim to fame. But eventually, Pfeiffer said, “everything in the house is going to be made out of a carbon-based material.”
Getting there will require UW to figure out how well its coal-char bricks hold up against the competition. The researchers are most of the way through the year they plan to spend monitoring the conditions inside the char-brick house and its conventional neighbor. So far, Pfeiffer said, the results are looking promising.
“We’ve done summer, fall; now we’re in the winter,” Pfeiffer said. “In the summer, the char-brick house is cooler on the inside than the clay-brick house. So it’s able to keep the heat out in the summer. And in the wintertime, it’s warmer in the char-brick house.”
Char bricks are cheaper and less energy-intensive to make than clay bricks, she said. They’re similarly strong, but weigh much less. They’re fire-resistant. They can be recycled. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg for the industry UW is trying to launch.
“There’s a lot of things we can do with coal that don’t have anything to do with burning it,” Pfeiffer said.
The scope of coal-based manufacturing is almost limitless — at least in theory. In practice, the market will decide coal products’ fate. To succeed, they’ll have to measure up, in quality and in cost.
That’s why many developers have gravitated toward carbon-based goods they can sell at a premium, like graphene and carbon fibers. But not UW.
“We are focusing on high-volume type products, not high-value products,” Pfeiffer said. “Our goal is to sell as much coal as we can.”
UW’s researchers see the char bricks as a breakthrough. They’re confident it’ll be the first of many. How their work plays out, and what it ultimately means for the state, remains to be seen.
State leaders are doing all they can to stop the electricity market from driving coal plants extinct. They’re also focusing with more intensity than ever on the potential for innovative new markets, like the ones taking shape at UW, to keep the mines alive even if the power sector does move on.
“What we’re trying to do with what we have isn’t going to completely replace the thermal uses of coal, because there’s just so much,” Pfeiffer said. “However, I do think it could put a nice dent into it.”
Many in Wyoming have embraced the idea.
“I see coal’s role in the economy changing over time,” said Gov. Mark Gordon. The question that forces the state to answer, he said, is “how we recover revenue from a changing mix of energy right now.”
During the nearly four decades that Wyoming’s mines have dependably churned out more coal than any other state, the industry has paid tens of billions of dollars in taxes. The mines’ blue-collar job offerings have transformed Gillette into the third-most populous city in the state. Coal cemented itself long ago as an asset that people in Wyoming — and especially in Campbell County — really don’t want to lose.
Wyoming taxes oil and gas producers at a similar rate to coal. The revenue it earns from other generation sources, like wind and solar, is, proportionately, much smaller. As coal gives way across the electricity sector to cheaper, cleaner alternatives, the state budget is feeling the strain.
“Wyoming has this massive amount of carbon, of coal,” said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “We know how to use it, we know how to get it out of the ground and reclaim the area afterwards.”
The people who work in the mines bring a lot of value to the state, he said. Their jobs are important, too. Which is what makes UW’s research, and its market implications, so consequential.
A lot of industries depend on coal. Union Pacific Railroad, for example, risks losing one of its top customers. And Wyoming doesn’t want to let that happen. With little choice but to accept that its marginal coal demand alone can’t save the industry, the state is focusing increasingly on breathing new life into the resources it still has at its disposal.
“We’re creating our own future here,” Barrasso said.
At the epicenter
The decline of Wyoming’s foundational industry leaves Gillette in a precarious spot.
Home to several coal plants and surrounded by nine of the most productive coal mines in the country (plus a handful of smaller ones), Gillette relies much less on any individual operation than does a single-mine town like Kemmerer. But a cascade of closures in the heart of Wyoming’s coal country would be uniquely devastating.
The city is holding fast to coal in every form it can. It expects to continue supplying the country’s dwindling fleet of coal plants at least into the 2030s, and it’ll fight for carbon capture to keep surviving plants open for as long as the possibility persists.
“I think the last trainload of thermal coal that’s ever burned in the United States is probably leaving Campbell County,” said Rusty Bell, a former county commissioner.
Gillette is also grappling, increasingly, with its place in a future where the electricity sector might not have much use for coal. If carbon capture alone doesn’t rescue the industry, lawmakers have begun to ask, what else will?
Conversion to products has emerged as the most promising — and maybe only — answer.
“We’re in a spot right now where we have to try,” Bell said. “Hopefully, some of those products take root and become marketable.”
At least one already has. Atlas Carbon, based in Gillette, manufactures activated carbon from Powder River Basin coal for use in air and water filters. (The company didn’t return a Star-Tribune request for comment.)
The Wyoming Innovation Center, a coal utilization incubator, opened its doors in the city last summer with the goal of launching more coal-based businesses.
“The potential exists. A lot of the research has been done at the lab level. And the point of our facility here, the Innovation Center, is we want to see that technology scaled up to prove the commercial potential of manufacturing something from coal,” said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development, the company behind the facility.
Some local leaders believe Gillette is well on its way to becoming a research hub for all things carbon. Others worry that its economic rebalancing isn’t happening quickly — or widely — enough.
As the city seeks to modernize its coal economy, it’s trying simultaneously to integrate new industries, but doing so hasn’t always been as much of a priority.
“We don’t have a lot of that other non-coal stuff coming, and that’s what I would like to bring in,” said Eric Hanson, a coal miner who served as Gillette’s mayor for most of 2022. He spent his brief term pushing the city to devote more resources to broadening its tax base.