Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development, has always had a dedication to his profession – to expand and diversify Campbell County, Wyoming’s local economy. Campbell County, branded as the Carbon Valley, is home to Christopherson’s most recent project – the Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC). Opening this summer, WyIC is a technology-scale up facility for advanced carbon products utilizing coal and coal by-products as a raw material. This facility is a hub where tenants can test and refine new “clean” products made from the region’s Powder River Basin coal. Read more about Christopherson’s experience in the Carbon Valley and how the coal-to-product industry came about.
Q: Can you give details on your organization’s work in coal-to-product research? How does your work benefit the Carbon Valley region in Wyoming?
Christopherson: In Wyoming, we saw a shift happening in the world, where the global population wanted to move away from coal, oil and natural gas. Relying heavily on those resources in the past has not been optimal for building a cleaner environment. In Carbon Valley, we are learning the best ways to keep our planet clean, while continuing to utilize some of our most abundant natural resources. Because Wyoming has always had an abundance of mineral resources, such as coal and oil, we saw a need to diversify our economy. A good way to do that was to find alternative uses for coal – something other than burning it – that would utilize the carbon, but not the contaminants.
We needed to find a destination that had a research institution with the ability to scale up from a lab to commercial operation. When we determined that nothing like that existed in our region, we decided to create it ourselves. That was the basis for developing the Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC); it will serve as a place where researchers can use our resources, contribute to our state and national economy and find new ways to use coal that are better for our environment.
Q: How do you believe the work coming out of the Carbon Valley will benefit the nation as a whole?
Christopherson: To abandon coal because it’s not clean to burn is a terrible misuse of the nation’s abundant natural resources. Coal can be used for many products, including asphalt, graphene, graphite and agricultural char, that do not negatively impact the environment. These goods can exist in a lab, but they need to be scaled up to a commercial level. The WyIC provides a space for those products to be scaled up and tested, so that they can be utilized longer term. By developing alternative uses for coal, like we are doing in Carbon Valley and will be doing specifically at the Wyoming Innovation Center, we will help the nation become cleaner and greener and will utilize the vast natural resources that we have in a very efficient manner. There is also new technology constantly evolving that will allow coal to burn in a clean way, which is less harmful to the environment. I’d like to point out that we are not opposed to using coal as a thermal means of generating power – we just want it to be done in a clean and environmentally friendly approach.
Q: Where do you see the Carbon Valley 10 years from now?
Christopherson: In economic development, 10 years isn’t really a long time. Most projects I’ve worked on take five or six years to get off the ground. That’s certainly the case with the Wyoming Innovation Center. We started this project back in 2015 and now, seven years down the road, we’re just getting this project constructed. Now that we’ve nearly completed construction, I can see a future in the product market. I think in 10 years, we will be nearing the end of the beginning for this project. Coal will most likely still be in decline, and we will be in a community effort to provide hope to Campbell County and other communities. I expect to have had several research projects graduate out of the Wyoming Innovation center that are going into commercial production.
Q: What do you do during your free time?
Christopherson: I mostly spend time with my family. I have 10 grandchildren with an 11th on the way, and I love to watch them explore all that Wyoming has to offer. I also like to build things, sometimes small projects and sometimes large, whether it’s around my house or contributing to projects like the Wyoming Innovation Center.
Q: What is your favorite part about living and working in Wyoming and Gillette/Campbell County specifically?
Christopherson: Wyoming is a wonderful state. I love that I am immersed in the outdoors and the weather is always beautiful. I was born and raised in the state and, while I left briefly to pursue a job opportunity after college, my heart always called me home to Wyoming. Now, I have a 10-minute commute to work, and I get to watch my kids and grandkids experience the state’s many amenities in my down time.