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Sophomore College in Wyoming 2014: Student Reports

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By Minh Chau Ho

What happens when we turn on the light switches in our home? Where does that energy come from, and how does it remain available 24/7? These are some of the questions that students of the 2014 Sophomore College course Energy in the West set out to explore this past September. This is the Bill Lane Center’s seventh Sophomore College offering, a three-week September intensive course that takes rising sophomores from all backgrounds into the West to study a particular topic in depth. Professors Sally Benson (energy resources engineering), Bruce Cain (political science), and David Freyberg (civil and environmental engineering) led this year’s course into the energy landscape of Wyoming.

Energy in the West

As the second- and tenth-largest energy producer in the United States and in the world, respectively, Wyoming was well qualified for a place-based learning experience. Students visited sites pertaining to coal, oil, and gas (including coal-bed methane production and fracking), CO2 capture and storage, hydropower, and wind energy, as well as regulators, policy advisors, and engaged citizens to help them understand both the technical and social aspects of Wyoming’s energy industry.

Students spent the first week on campus attending lectures on the basics of energy and current energy issues in Wyoming. Guest lecturers deepened their understanding of the extraction, production, and transportation of the global energy landscape. They saw energy in their own backyard during visits to Stanford’s cogeneration plant and the new energy facility in the Stanford Energy System Innovations project. Armed with this background knowledge, the group flew to Wyoming to learn the story of the Energy State.

The 1,500-mile Journey

On the ground, students visited coal mines, power plants, hydroelectric plants and dams, shale gas fields, and more to get a sense of how energy was extracted, transported, and refined, and how power was generated (Figure 1). These visits provided an understanding of traditional sources of energy and a better appreciation for the recent technological advances. The group also visited renewable energy companies developing solar, wind, and nuclear technologies. The trip concluded at the University of Wyoming’s Energy Innovation Center, where students played with some of the newest technologies currently being developed to advance energy resources research in Wyoming.

There were also many opportunities to explore the political structure governing Wyoming’s energy industries. The students met with a number of regulators and political advisors in Gov. Matt Mead’s office, in addition to the supervisors and directors of the energy companies they toured, to learn about regulatory processes and economic obstacles concerned with energy development, environmental protection, and federal regulations. It was easy to see how the diverse interests of numerous stakeholders made energy regulation a complex problem. Community members and tribal leaders also shared their concerns, adding their voices to the students' understanding of energy’s impacts on people’s everyday lives.

Learning Lessons

Many of the students had never set foot in Wyoming before this past September, and in two short weeks, they learned lessons that will inform their understanding of energy problems around the world. To synthesize their thinking, students reflected upon Gov. Matt Mead's energy plan, Leading the Charge, and recommended amendments based on their conversations with Wyoming citizens. We share those reports with you here:

Many thanks to everyone in Wyoming who made time in their schedules to welcome us into their homes and their workplaces. Without you, this trip would not have been possible.


Leading the Charge from the Bottom Up and the Top Down

By Victoria Mao, Teddy Morris-Knower, Max Vilgalys

While touring Wyoming, many of the energy industry workers we spoke to mentioned a problem with educating and retaining engineering skills in-state. For our project, we chose to address this issue in two major ways. The first is suggesting specific programs to implement to improve energy education, giving students tools in STEM and motivation to stay in-state due to awareness of Wyoming's role in global energy markets. The second is a top-down approach, examining the economics of Canada's Heartland Project as a model for encouraging industry in Wyoming to employ more engineers and other educated energy workers in-state instead of sending them to companies' central facilities in other states.


Carbon Capture and Coal Exports

By Justin Appleby, Valerie Chen, Leslie Kurt

While going over the Wyoming Governor’s Energy Plan, we noticed that there was an overwhelming focus on keeping Wyoming coal viable. With EPA standards on carbon dioxide emissions more stringent than ever, coal is becoming a less and less attractive option around the country. It is in the best interest of Wyoming, as the nation’s foremost coal producer, to find ways of keeping this product viable. The Governor’s Plan touches on two possibilities: coal export to growing countries in East and Southeast Asia, and the Hybrid Energy systems that will utilize a combination of energy resources in a large energy campus. Our amendments focus on the possibility of investing in uses of captured carbon and analyze the economic viability of coal shipment to East Asian countries, with China used as the primary example.


Meeting the EPA Emissions Reduction Mandate

By Glenn Baxter, Sage Lagron, Helen Xiong

Touring Wyoming, we heard many times that meeting the EPA’s emission reduction mandates would destroy Wyoming’s economy, if it was not considered altogether impossible. Our group investigated what the necessary build-out would look like in Wyoming. We examined converting coal-fired plants to natural gas, coal plant closures, and incorporating nuclear and wind, as well as residential efficiency measures. Our findings indicated that retrofitting coal plants was not economical, and furthermore, retrofitting every coal-fired plant in Wyoming would not meet the EPA mandate without further work. Meeting the EPA emissions reduction mandate with nuclear, at $21 billion, appears to be more than half again as expensive as wind, at $13 billion. Household efficiency measures, while beneficial, will not have the maximum benefit given the expense involved with the state’s low population.


Raising Revenue and Trust in Wyoming's Energy Industry

By Dan Fan, Ian Naccarella, Kimberly Tan

The coal, oil, and natural gas extraction industry in Wyoming is surrounded by a plethora of policies that regulate, among other things, safety, pricing, and trade practices. Due to the complex system of land ownership, mineral rights, and taxation, there is also a complicated relationship between the extraction companies and the federal and state governments. The policies developed within these industries provide just a snapshot of these complexities. We investigate four policies regarding bonds, leases, baseline testing, and chemical disclosures and propose amendments to improve these policies.