September 16, 2022
From September 1980 to June 1981 I wrote four articles under commission for the trade magazine of the Wyoming Mining Association which touched upon the travails of the uranium industry, problems facing the coal mining industry, and strategic minerals. It is no small irony that every problem of the 1970s appears to have returned in the present. Chief among these is an energy crisis created once before in the late 1960s and 1970s by bad energy policy which has returned as a result of bad energy policy. So, it was with amazement that I saw a conference entitled “Wyoming’s Energy Future” held on Wednesday September 15 in Laramie. The conference included four panel discussions. One each on: nuclear energy, oil and gas production, rare earths and critical minerals, and coal. It was like 1980 again.
This conference was organized by the Wold Foundation. Its intent was to help reboot the sort of attitude and enthusiasm that helped set off almost 50 years of prosperity in Wyoming producing mineral commodities beginning in the early 1970s. Each panel consisted of someone from industry, someone from the policy world, and occasionally a person from the regulatory or environmental world. In addition there was a keynote address by Governor Mark Gordon, and a few closing remarks by Peter Wold. One-third of the attendees were from industry with the balance coming from academia (students included), government and NGOs.
I didn’t attend all four panel sessions, but the two I did attend, nuclear power and coal, plus the keynote address and closing remarks proved very interesting for what was said explicitly and for what one could surmise. Since Wyoming is a key energy state, producing one-eighth of U.S. energy (with a population only about one six-hundredth of the U.S.) and exporting the bulk of it, what goes on here never stays here.
Nuclear Energy comes to Wyoming
This opening panel discussion of the day featured four speakers, but most interest and most of the audience questions targeted Chris Levesque who is the Chief Executive Officer of TerraPower. TerraPower plans to build a metallic sodium reactor near Kemmerer, Wyoming. Construction is due to begin in 2024. The initial work will be non-nuclear infrastructure. Approval from the NRC is planned for 2025. Wyoming produces a lot of fuel for nuclear reactors, but has never done more than supply yellow-cake to this time.
The TerraPower plant has a maximum capacity of about 350MW (electrical) which at 40% efficiency works out to around 875 MW (thermal). But this obscures what is unique about the Terrapower concept. Large nuclear power plants have difficulties load following and are suited to baseload applications. The Terrapower design does a two-step shuffle where the nuclear plant runs in a sort of baseload mode, but rather than running a turbine directly from steam, the output of the reactor transfers heat via liquid sodium metal to thermal storage using sodium salts. Moreover, the molten salt storage, he says, integrates well with renewables which can contribute energy to the molten salt when they would otherwise have to be curtailed.
One of the more interesting questions he had to field was “where does the fuel come from?”
Terrapower had originally thought that they would purchase fuel from Russia. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine that is now gone. Instead they plan to make the first core load by diluting a source of highly enriched uranium (weapons grade perhaps) to the required 19% enrichment. After this they expect to have a fuel manufacturing capability available. What this entails exactly I don’t recall that he specified.
I had a short conversation with Mr. Levesque after the session where he told me, because of using the molten salts as the proximate source of steam, the plant can ramp at a slew rate of 8% per minute, which I took to mean double its power in nine minutes. That is a pretty capable load follower.
Unfortunately Mr. Levesque didn’t have time to talk about a couple of other topics of interest. I don’t doubt there are some 800 very smart engineers in the company working on this project, but I have materials science colleagues who are pretty certain the molten salts present a distinct corrosion issue. Will the NRC, which moves painfully slowly and carefully, actually make an approval by 2025? For Wyoming in particular, a construction project that expects 2000 workers at peak in a remote town with only 2,700 residents may present some amount of social upheaval and an unpleasant boom/bust cycle.
Coal: The Future of a Wyoming Energy Pillar
Commissioner Mary Throne, Esq. from the Wyoming Public Service commission was on this panel along with Trina Pfieffer from the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion at UW, and Patrick Forkin who is the Chief Development Officer for Peabody Coal.
All I will say about the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion is that they are working on a number of interesting projects involving new markets for coal that don’t involve the specter of burning coal and releasing CO2. They are looking at building materials, soil fortifiers, pavement, and so forth.
Commissioner Throne made the most interesting, and I thought troubling remarks. As its website states, “It is the PSC’s responsibility to ensure the public utilities operating in Wyoming provide safe and reliable service to customers at just and reasonable rates.” Commissioner throne referred to this in her introductory statement as a mantra, which I found an odd choice of words, especially following on the heels of “this isn’t your grandmother’s PSC.”
It brought to mind a controversy from several years ago.In 2019 the Wyoming legislature became concerned about early closure of coal-fired plants which would have detrimental effects on employment and the economy. One legislator from Gillette, Wyoming expressed concerns about unintended consequences. PacificPower at the time was proposing an early closure of Jim Bridger power station in Western Wyoming. Their argument relied on the basis of providing cheaper power for customers through renewables for instance – appealing to a part of the PSC mission. But legislators thought they saw west coast politics involved which would end up injuring Wyoming employment and income.
Nonetheless, in the meantime we have observed the Ercot catastrophe of February 2021 and its lesson about having sufficient dispatchable power available goes directly to the heart of the PSC duty to provide reliable power. I’ll speak more about this topic under the heading of environmentalism.
My question prompted Commissioner Throne to speak about legislation from the 2019 dust-up. The legislature has required that before a coal-fired plant can be retired early its owner must make an earnest attempt to find a buyer. None are forthcoming, she said. My guess at one reason for this I will explain later.
I asked the following three questions of the coal panel. 1) Rather than shutter coal plants, wouldn’t it be prudent to consider replacing them with advanced ultrasupercritical coal plants? 2) Since natural gas is a very high utility fuel doesn’t it make sense to burn coal, a low utility fuel, for electricity rather than burn natural gas? 3) Considering the amounts of land needed and the enormous quantities of materials required, how much renewable energy can we tolerate and still believe we are saving the Earth?
Commissioner Throne again provided the most interesting answers. To the first two questions she said that no coal-fired power plant would be permitted that releases carbon dioxide.
We now have an idea why there are no buyers for coal plants that are closing early. Besides having trouble over ESG in the financing of such, they would have to employ carbon capture, which without a nearby oil field needing CO2 for tertiary recovery would make the purchase non-economic. This almost convinces me that the PSC may be seeing climate change as a fourth goal to add to their mantra. A lot of potential unintended consequences will flow from having every board of commissioners adopt climate change as being within their purview.
Commissioner Throne misinterpreted my third question as being “how much renewable energy can we tolerate in the grid?” She answered that everyone now understands that we cannot operate a grid without dispatchable energy. This sounds like progress. But then she took a stab at maybe 80% renewables. This is far too high as Ercot’s experience in Texas in February 2021 clearly shows. In fact without any dispatchable energy the worst of the February 2021 cold snap suggests one would need 8000% renewables.
With regard to coal-fired power, the most optimistic statement was in Bill Wold’s closing remarks. “Two years ago,” he said, “we thought coal was dead. Now it has a bright future because economics matters.”
Though there was no panel specifically about environmental aspects of our energy future, environment related questions were often in the shadows. There was the ever present climate change concern. This was mentioned, albeit briefly, in every panel session, and in the key note address and closing remarks.
The most explicit reference to climate change came from Commissioner Throne who said during the Coal Panel “Coal is not the enemy, carbon dioxide is.”
However, rather than exonerating coal in any way, this statement actually makes all fossil fuels a target along with modern agriculture and most of the modern world. Carbon dioxide by product has to be weighed against the benefits that fossil fuels offer. In the two panels I sat through I saw that only industry focussed people would say something like this explicitly. The regulatory people, policy and political types will not. They operate under beliefs that appear to be axiomatic.
An example was provided through a happenstance communication with the Pragmatic Environmentalist Of New York. At an energy conference in New York the day after the one in Laramie, Gov. Hochul said this:
“We have very ambitious goals, but I know we will meet them because we really have no choice as we talk about green hydrogen, and enhanced battery storage,” Hochul said yesterday at the 2022 Advanced Energy Conference in New York City.
“I mean, these are the challenges that lie before us, but there’s nothing, no challenge that cannot be solved through smart people, the use of technology, create good jobs, create that whole ecosystem right here in New York and be the template for the rest of the world.”
Disregarding the daffy expression, nothing she said wasn’t repeated any number of times by some speakers in Laramie. Our own Governor spoke about joining a hydrogen hub, saving the world, and creating prosperity out of the energy transition.
Governor Gordon also made the perfectly valid point that we should not waste resources. Yet, embracing CO2 capture without a valid economic market to serve (say enhanced oil recovery) tacks perilously close to doing just that – wasting resources. The hydrogen hub must either bury half of the work potential of natural gas as carbon black or about a third if it is CO2 that ends up buried instead.
Re-engineering the world’s energy systems is a difficult task best appreciated by people who have built and managed the present ones. There is no guarantee it can be done at all. However, the belief in a climate crisis has been so repeated it is now reflexive – Red state that supplies energy, Blue state that consumes it; no matter. It will lead to many poor decisions and waste of money because lurking behind every energy related decision is the perceived need to bury carbon dioxide. It becomes a deadly constraint.
Among other environmental concerns, on the other hand, these energy stakeholders in Wyoming are not quite ready to see renewable energy impacts on viewshed, natural scenery, noise, recreation and quiet enjoyment in quite the same way they saw threats to surface, water, and air quality in the 1970s. In summary they focus on the speculative but all consuming to the detriment of the real but overlooked.
In the 1981 article I wrote regarding coal mining I had this to say.
“Questions concerning the effect of carbon dioxide are another matter entirely. Carbon dioxide is a product of burning coal and as such cannot be eliminated or reduced. However, it is not clear that releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide will adversely affect the Earth’s environment. This is a complicated question involving some knowledge of how carbon dioxide moves through the hydrologic and food cycles on Earth. Environmental questions require very thorough study to insure [sic] that the cases for and against a particular energy technology are stated in proper perspective with our energy and economic needs.”
The great strides we have made in 41 years on this topic is to substitute carbon for carbon dioxide.
- Kevin T. Kilty, “What has happened to the uranium industry?”, The Mining Claim, December, 1980, p. 4-5.
- Kevin T. Kilty, “Current problems in mining coal”, The Mining Claim, June, 1981, p. 6-7.
- Kevin T. Kilty, “Strategic Minerals”, The Mining Claim, September, 1981, p. 6-8.
- The Oxford language dictionary online defines the common English usage of mantra as: a statement or slogan repeated frequently.By odd coincidence they use it in a sample sentence as “the environmental mantra that energy has for too long been too cheap”
- Andrew Graham, “The Wyoming Public Service Commission’s uncomfortable time in the spotlight.” Wyofile, November 19, 2019. Found online at: https://wyofile.com/the-wyoming-pscs-uncomfortable-moment-in-the-spotlight/
- h/t Roger Caiazza, personal communication.