The story behind the new $100-million GE-Wyoming coal gasification project goes back to the early 1980s when a then-California-based energy company, Tosco, was trying to extract fuel from massive oil shale deposits outside Grand Junction, Colorado.
The challenge at the time, former Tosco CEO Morton Winston recalled in an interview with WyoFile.com, was to build a device that could introduce precisely measured amounts of crushed oil shale into a mildly pressurized chamber. Winston turned to a brilliant British mechanical engineer named Donald Firth for help.
What Firth came up with looks like a pipe with a big bulge, something like a snake that has swallowed a basketball. Inside the bulge is a rotating spool similar to that used to wind up cable.
The Colorado oil shale effort failed. But Winston and Firth quickly saw the potential of their new device, now called the Stamet Pump, for moving coal.
In re-engineered form, the Stamet Pump has become the controversial centerpiece of what many feel could be a major advance in coal gasification technology. Most energy experts consider coal gasification a critical step in capturing CO2 emissions in the fight against global warming.
For Wyoming, the pump figures prominently in University of Wyoming’s recent 50-50 partnership with one company, General Electric, among a half-dozen major energy companies competing to gasify Wyoming’s high-moisture Powder River Basin Coal.
Also contributing to this story was Jeff Gerth, reporter for the national investigative journalism project ProPublica.org
How much the state will gain from the exclusive arrangement with GE is not clear since much of the 43-page agreement Oct. 14 agreement between GE and UW is blacked-out to protect what GE deems commercial and trade secrets.
But if the project develops a more efficient and economical process for gasification of Powder River Basin coal, it could be a significant boost for Wyoming’s considerable coal interests.
In gasification, coal, along with with oxygen and steam, are injected into a high temperature, high pressure reactor until the chemical bonds of the coal break down. The resulting “syngas” can be refined and burned as fuel. Even the steam used to produce syngas can be used to drive electric turbines.
From a global warming perspective, the “pre-combustion” gasification process makes it much easier to remove CO2 and other greenhouse gases from coal than in traditional “post-combustion” pulverized coal power plants that currently dominate the electric power industry.
Central to GE’s ambitions for Powder River Basin coal is the Stamet Pump. The controversy is that officials with the U.S. Department of Energy feel strongly that the Stamet technology should belong to the public and not be “sequestered” by GE into the expensive new gasification system it is developing.
Beginning in 1997, the DOE devoted ten years and nearly $3 million in public funds adapting the Stamet Pump for coal gasification.
In May 2007, Carl Bauer, the DOE director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, testified before Congress that successful tests on the Stamet pump at the DOE Power Systems Development Facility in Wilsonville, Alabama, marked a potential breakthrough in coal gasification technology, particularly on high-moisture, sub-bituminous coals like those mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
“It allows coal to be ‘pumped’ directly into a high pressure gasifier,” Bauer told the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, “thus avoiding the need for coal drying and a complex lock-hopper feeding system or, alternatively, a slurry feeding system that is inefficient when used to feed high-moisture western coals.”
Since 40 percent of electricity in this country is generated with these high-moisture coals, mostly from Wyoming, the tests represented a major advance in the industry. The presumption was that the pump’s developer, Stamet Inc. of Gardena, Ca., would license the device and sell it for use in gasification systems. Thus, the whole world could benefit from the DOE-funded research.
But less than a month after Bauer’s glowing report, General Electric bought Stamet Inc. for an undisclosed price. Over the strident objections of DOE officials who felt the federally funded Stamet research should be in the public domain, GE took the technology private.
GE officials say the Stamet Pump will be incorporated into a new Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) electric power generation system it is developing. So instead of selling the pumps separately, GE could ask customers to buy the whole IGCC system with a price-tag well over $2 billion.
After the Stamet sale, at least two meetings took place between GE representatives and DOE officials. A participant in one of the meetings said there were heated exchanges between the two sides.
“Public tax dollars were used,” said Gary Stiegel, National Energy Technology Laboratory gasification manager.”We felt that the public should reap the benefits of that technology. We urged GE to make it available to any and all gasification projects in the country.”
However, existing federal laws limit public ownership of technology developed with DOE-funded research to matters of national security. As a result, Stiegel said the DOE could do little more than exert “moral pressure” on the company to release the technology. GE refused.
A few months later GE took the additional step of withdrawing support for a scientific report on the pump that was scheduled to be presented at the European Gasification Conference in Antwerp Sept. 10-12, 2007.
On Oct. 14, 2008, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan, and GE executives signed an agreement to build the $100-million High Plains Gasification Advanced Technology Center at a yet-to- be-determined site in Wyoming. Both GE and the state of Wyoming agreed to contribute $50 million to the project.
According to GE gasification manager Monte Atwell, the center, to be built at a 1-100 scale of a full-size gasification plant, will be fully operational in 2012.
One of the main purposes of the new facility is to test the Stamet pump gasification system for private commercial sale by GE. The company says the Wyoming coal has too much moisture to be used in GE’s other “slurry feed” gasification technology.
Keith White, a Naval Academy graduate who is GE director of IGCC products, said, his company is grateful to DOE for its work with the Stamet Pump, formally called the Stamet Posimetric High Pressure Solids Feeder.
“We applaud the Department of Energy for its incubation research,” White said.
But White said the High Plains Center “is not just for Stamet but a test bed for many things.”
Among the challenges, White said, is dealing with gasification at Wyoming’s high altitude. “There are also a lot of other advanced cleanup technologies that, quite frankly, we don’t know anything about yet,” White said. If the High Plains Center research is successful, GE stands to make billions of dollars, particularly if, as many expect, the United States and other countries begin imposing penalties on CO2 emissions to reduce global warming.
New IGCC power plants of the type GE hopes to build now cost about $2.3 billion each. China, which last year surpassed the United States as the leader in greenhouse gas emissions, is a likely major customer.
In a press conference in his office on Thursday, Nov. 13, Gov. Freudenthal, with GE executives and University of Wyoming officials at his side, heralded the project as a “milestone for Wyoming and for those who use Powder River Basin coal. It will demonstrate the ability to continue to use Powder River Basin coal in a wide market.”
The 43-page GE-University of Wyoming agreement includes 13 blacked-out pages devoted to intellectual property, as well as what GE said were “commercial and trade secrets.”
The governor defended the numerous secret parts in the agreement as complying “directly with the open records laws and public records laws we have in Wyoming.”
The Wyoming Public Records Act states the public does not have the right to view “the specific details of bona fide research projects being conducted by state institutions” nor “trade secrets, privileged information and confidential commercial, financial, geological or geophysical data.”
But the heavily redacted sections of the agreement also mean that the public has no information about what the university or GE can expect to gain from their $50-million investments. For example, the unredacted sections available to the public do not say if the state will get any money from future sales of technology developed at the center.
To represent its interests in the delicate negotiations with GE over intellectual property, the university hired a Denver law firm, Hogan & Hartson. According to invoices obtained by WyoFile, the University paid Hogan & Hartson more than $120,000 between June 25 and Sept. 17, calculated at hourly billing rates ranging from $540 to $640 an hour.
The negotiations took several months longer than originally expected.
“The agreement,” said Freudenthal, “took an immense amount of time in large part because it was Wyoming’s first extended experience with some of the more detailed aspects of intellectual property.”
The governor and UW President Buchanan each spoke of the academic potential of having a facility of this type on Wyoming soil and partly staffed by UW faculty and students. GE gasification executive Atwell described the center as “a magnet for the best and the brightest who want to be in this game long term.”
However, the arrangement also means that the state of Wyoming and its university will be doing what the federal government refused to do.
After GE refused DOE urgings to share the Stamet technology with other gasification efforts, Stiegel said the DOE immediately halted all cooperation and research into the Stamet Pump.
Rather than side with the DOE contention that the Stamet technology should be made public, the university has pledged formally to assist GE in keeping it secret.
After dropping its Stamet research, Stiegel said, the federal energy laboratory has accelerated research into a competing system being developed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Inc., a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp. that, he said, has “comparable potential” to the Stamet pump.
On Oct. 3, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne announced a partnership with oil giant ExxonMobil to develop compact gasification technology, about one-tenth the size of other gasification projects, using this new technology.
When the DOE withdrew support, GE couldn’t get access to federal laboratories. GE began looking for a place to test its new pump and other technology advances at a commercial scale, while still maintaining its proprietary interests.
GE has a sophisticated coal testing laboratory in Shanghai, China, but most American companies consider China too risky for testing cutting-edge technology because of the country’s notorious history of intellectual property theft.
Wyoming and its university stepped up as willing and discreet partners for GE.
In the summer of 2007, GE engineers and UW officials met several times to discuss a possible collaborative project.
According to Gov. Freudenthal’s staff, however, the proposal for a jointly funded research facility using Powder River Basin Coal took a serious step forward at the November 2007 World Energy Conference in Rome where Freudenthal and GE chairman Jeff Immelt were both speakers.
After meeting privately with Immelt, the Wyoming governor emerged thinking that a deal might be in the works.
“When it first became real to me,” said Rob Hurless, the governor’s energy advisor, “was when the governor came back from Rome and said this thing might happen. Then the discussion became more ‘How much it would cost?’ and ‘What would we gain from it?’ and ‘Where would we get the money?'”
In this regard, Wyoming and its Democratic governor caught a timely break. For more than a decade Wyoming and other western coal states had been arguing for their share of billions of dollars collected and held in reserve by the federal government under the 1977 Abandoned Mine Land act. In part because of legislation sponsored by Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, the money finally became available last winter.
“It had been a 10-year battle and it was finally resolved,” said Hurless. “The governor made the argument that the money ought to be used for energy and not become general-fund money.”
In February this year, Freudenthal announced that all of Wyoming’s $50-million share of the GE gasification project would come from previously untapped Abandoned Mine funds due the state. The legislature agreed, allocating $20-million in the last session and promising more when the governor asks for it.
In his Nov. 13 press conference, the governor said the state now has $82 million in Abandoned Mine money available.
With the state money available, the GE partnership fit perfectly into Freudenthal’s long-held ambition to protect Wyoming’s coal interests in the face of changing environmental and public policy conditions.
Beginning about 30 years ago, Wyoming low-sulfur coal was one of the principle beneficiaries of the 1977 and, later, 1990 ammendments to the Clean Air Act (See this link) aimed at reducing acid rain. The act gave Wyoming coal an edge over higher grade, but much higher sulfur, eastern coals.
Now the Powder River Basin coal faces the prospect of falling victim to another round of environmental adjustments brought on by global warming.
Most industry experts expect the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress to impose some kind of penalty or tax on CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming. Both Barack Obama and John McCain campaigned on platforms endorsing “carbon cap and trade” proposals that would penalize CO2 polluters.
Gasification of coal, the basics of which date to pre-World War II Germany, is a cheaper and more efficient way of capturing greenhouse gas emissions than traditional pulverized coal power plants. Freudenthal wants to make sure that technologies exist to gasify Wyoming coal under the anticipated CO2 regimen.
“The governor feels it is important to keep the discussion in play for Powder River Basin coal,” said Freudenthal Chief of Staff Chris Boswell.
At the same time, Immelt and GE also had been seeking a more promising way to gasify Powder River Basin Coal. The coal slurry gasification system GE bought from Chevron-Texaco in 2004 was too expensive to use for Wyoming coal because of its the high moisture content.
This represented a problem for the world’s largest manufacturer of power plants. The Stamet pump with its dry-feed system was one possible solution.
“If GE wants to play in the Powder River Basin game,” said one gasification industry expert who asked not to be named, “it will have to redesign its basic gasifier design to allow use of dry feedstock. Competing technologies can now do this.”
One potential problem with Wyoming’s exclusive agreement with GE is that at least four other companies already have gasification technology that can process Powder River Basin coal. Two of the rival companies, Siemens and Shell, both operate their own dry feed IGCC systems.
This raises the issue that by partnering exclusively with GE, the state of Wyoming could be accused of subsidizing one company at the expense of its competitors. In this case, one could even argue that Wyoming, with its $50-million cash infusion, is helping GE catch up with more advanced rivals.
“The notion that existing gasification technology cannot process Powder River Basin coal is pure nonsense because there are a number of technologies today that can do that,” said James Childress, executive director of the Gasification Technologies Council, the main industry trade group.
One of the rival companies, ConocoPhillips, has successfully used Wyoming coal at its 160 MW LGTI Plaquemine plant south of Baton Rouge, Lousiana.
“We’ve actually gasified more Powder River Basin coal than we have the other fuels we’ve run combined,” ConnocoPhillips executive Phil Amick testified in a February 2007 deposition in Texas.
Amick also said in the deposition that the widely held contention that coal gasification doesn’t work with Powder River Basin coal or lignite is a “myth.”
In his press conference, Freudenthal dismissed the idea that the state of Wyoming is playing favorites among private, corporate competitors.
“I don’t subscribe to the characterization that this is a [state] subsidy. It is a mutually beneficial partnership,” Freudenthal said. “You know, I’ve kind of lost track of the number of people who have come through my office with different proposals. But at the end of the day, the only entity that was prepared to talk seriously about a project to which they would commit funds was GE.”
Freudenthal chief of staff Boswell observed, “GE just came in with a more mature proposal than the others. They had far more traction.”
Even Gary Stiegel, one of the DOE officials who objected to GE’s privatizing the Stamet Pump technology, sees potential in the GE-Wyoming project.
The rival dry-feed systems now offered by Siemens and Shell, Stiegel said, “are very costly and problematic in operation. What GE is doing has the potential of reducing the costs and improving the efficiency of coal gasification projects.”
Special Report Resources
“I enjoyed your article on the gasification project between GE and UW. I had always interpreted the research exception to the public records act to apply to research results, not the contract to do research. I am also having trouble with the trade secrets exception, but that seems to possibly have some applicabilty. What I found really interesting is that they redacted the addresses of the GE representatives, which appears to have no public records exception. And then there is the really odd redaction under waiver of sovereign immunity. It is a either a small word or a number. The redactions are problematic. Thanks for pointing out this issue.”
– State Representative Keith Gingery – Jackson Hole
“Fascinating article and a valuable contribution to public discussion of this topic, so important to Wyoming’s economic future. The prevailing attitude so far seems to be “this is too important to ask questions about” rather than “this is so important, we should be asking lots of questions.” One very important question is, “What exactly does Wyoming get for its $50 million?” and the answer should not be redacted from the documents you received. Surely that can be explained in language that is not commercially proprietary. The article also is quite timely as the Legislature’s Joint Interim Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee meets this week to consider draft legislation continuing the Clean Coal Task Force and looking at tax exemptions for clean coal ”
– Sarah Gorin
“Well balanced article from a technical perspective. One factual issue: You noted: “In gasification, coal, along with with oxygen and steam, are injected into a high temperature, high pressure reactor until the chemical bonds of the coal break down. The resulting “syngas” – primarily methane – can be refined and burned as fuel. Even the steam used to produce syngas can be used to drive electric turbines.”
Syngas is not primarily methane, but hydrogen and carbon monoxide, with generally small amounts of methane, depending on the technology. If one wishes to produce methane (or SNG) at commercial levels, an additional couple of steps are required.”
– Jim Childress, Gasification Technologies Council
Comments From Readers on NewWest.net
“Very interesting article. Hope to see a near term growth to be a large part of iur nation’s energy plan.”
By Eugene R. Ninnie, 11-20-08
“hmmm . . . this seems incredibly fishy. GE buys Stamet. GE buys off University of Wyoming and none of the records are available for the public eye? also, the ‘intellectual property’ could be privatized because it was ‘not a matter of national security.’ ONE QUESTION: HOW IS THIS NOT A MATTER OF NATIONAL SECURITY??? ENERGY FUTURES??
I think we’ve all experienced what happened with big business (the automakers) with their hands on electric-car technologies – they killed them and 20 years later the Volt is finally coming out. Lots of energy, money, and enviromental damage has occurred over the last 20 years.
Hopefully this will not all slip under the rug. At least, the redacted sections of the agreement with UW should see the light of day so we can get a better understanding of the power play involved here. ”
By huckhound, 11-22-08