Feds: We’ll find ‘right fit’ for Wyoming coal community grant proposals

Wyoming communities bracing for coal production downturns and coal-fired power plant closures will receive support from assorted federal “revitalization” grant programs, despite being shut out of the initial round of funding in December, according to the leader of President Joe Biden’s coal communities effort.

A Wyoming “rapid response team” was assembled late last year to work more closely with the state and its coal-dependent communities, and to “make sure that those communities have the right attention to find the right fit,” Brian Anderson told WyoFile.

Anderson, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, was tapped to serve as executive director of the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization. 

The IWG received many questions from Wyoming applicants — Wyoming Energy Authority, University of Wyoming, Campbell County Economic Development Corp. and the city of Cheyenne — along with criticism from Gov. Mark Gordon and Wyoming’s congressional delegation, Anderson said, following the news that four applications from the state were declined. 

“Yes, we were disappointed, as one of the offices that originated one of those proposals,” Wyoming Energy Authority Executive Director Glen Murrell told IWG officials during a public webinar Dec. 17. The IWG’s actions didn’t follow the language associated with granting opportunity, he said.

“I wanted to know … how do we understand the decision-making process better and how do we position the state better so that these opportunities are not lost?” Murrell said. “We simply cannot afford to not be successful with these pursuits.” 

Though Wyoming’s unsuccessful applications didn’t fit the criteria of strengthening “regional industry clusters” under the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, each Wyoming project — as well as future proposals — will likely win some federal support via other granting programs, Anderson told WyoFile.

“As an after-action, we are working across the IWG with [the U.S. Economic Development Administration] on ensuring that those applications that were not chosen have a life beyond tossing an application over a fence,” Anderson said.

Gov. Gordon’s energy policy advisor Randall Luthi said he’s hopeful the IWG will come through on its promise to help Wyoming communities. But, “it’s too early to tell,” he said.

There are about 75 different funding opportunities and more than $45 billion in federal funds available so far to help revitalize coal communities, according to the IWG.

The $45-plus billion estimate does not include funds that would be made available through the federal infrastructure bill. That measure would provide $63 billion to the Department of Energy, including $11.5 billion for various carbon capture endeavors — another interest and likely fit for Wyoming, Anderson said.

Nearly a dozen federal agencies are involved in the effort to revitalize coal communities, offering up grants to support energy innovation, infrastructure repair and upgrades for municipal water and roads, as well as fossil fuel infrastructure “repurposing” projects and expanding broadband, among other efforts.

“We know that coal communities around the country do not have [enough] access to broadband that they will need to participate in the economy,” Anderson said.

Anderson acknowledged that the expansive effort to connect coal communities with some 75 different granting programs among a dozen federal agencies is complex and a bit overwhelming for community leaders. To better inform potential applicants, the IWG set up a “funding opportunities” clearinghouse website. It also held a public webinar last week to help educate the public. 

“There’s so much for energy communities to try to digest, and that’s one of our big goals in the [IWG] is to deconvolute the federal process and make things a little easier and streamlined,” Anderson said.

Campbell County is focused on using its coal and mining infrastructure to attract carbon capture pilot programs and coal- and carbon-based manufacturing facilities for its proposed Pronghorn Industrial Park. Sweetwater County hopes to gain federal support to build an industrial park that would house manufacturing facilities for wind and solar energy components, as well as computing and commerce distribution centers.

Cheyenne put forth a proposal to connect passenger rail service to Colorado’s Front Range, and the Wyoming Energy Authority hopes to advance its vision of a “Wyoming energy transformation regional growth cluster.”

Although the declining demand for Wyoming coal is projected to continue, the industrial infrastructure built around it is an asset that could support less carbon-intensive energy innovations, University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources Executive Director Holly Krutka said.

“One of the big advantages here in Wyoming is that the citizens of our state are very, very open to different energy sources and to energy development,” Krutka told IWG officials during the December webinar. “Our feeling, and our collaborators across the state, we feel that Wyoming needs to build on its strength.”

That includes carbon capture programs to sequester CO2 underground and use it for commercial endeavors such as enhanced oil recovery, Krutka said. The university and SER have a long-established working relationship with the U.S. Department of Energy that includes multiple federal grants — most recently a $644,000 award “to assess the economic impacts of fossil energy production in Wyoming and evaluate opportunities and research needs to deploy clean hydrogen technologies,” according to SER.

“The state of Wyoming has spent millions of dollars on carbon engineering, which is our effort to create new products from Wyoming coal,” Krutka said. “We would love to be able to continue to mine that coal and use it without any emissions, driving down all those emissions over time and using it for coal-derived products.”

Residents need to get more involved in the state-and-federal conversation about what a transition to a more sustainable economy could look like beyond large industrial projects or low-paying service jobs, said Michele Irwin, who works as an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. The state and its institutions appear to be leading the conversation so far, she said. But there’s a risk of overlooking creative ideas that might be a better fit for individual communities.

“It feels like the state is actually having some conversations that we weren’t a year ago, so maybe we can seize the opportunity,” Irwin said. “What people in Wyoming want is good jobs, not another 10,000 [low-wage] jobs that bring a bunch of new people in.”

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is exploring federal support to build a series of electric vehicle charging stations, a potential boon for tiny roadside enclaves such as Point of Rocks, Irwin said. But there’s an urgency for small communities to get involved early and to get noticed, because the federal stimulus effort is moving quickly.

“There are billions of dollars being tossed around and we’re kind of feeling some urgency to get our stories heard,” Irwin said.

The IWG plans to host community discussions about how coal’s “legacy infrastructure” — rail spurs, power connections and support services — can be “repurposed for future economic revitalization,” Anderson said.
“One particular example is an announcement late last year by TerraPower to build a Natrium nuclear [power] plant in Wyoming,” Anderson said; that project is planned to take place at a coal plant scheduled for retirement. “There are many opportunities for how we can leverage the infrastructure that’s in place today [as] assets as we look into the future.”