Commissioners hope to turn Gillette into 'Carbon Valley'

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Study to focus on how Campbell County can become the go-to spot for carbon research


Campbell County commissioners want northeast Wyoming to become the hub for advanced carbon research, but they need to lay a foundation for that to happen, which is why they’re looking to conduct a study that would offer blueprint for making Gillette a “Carbon Valley.”

Commissioner Mark Christensen said he doesn’t want to develop Gillette’s economy through companies coming to town looking for “handouts and incentives.”

“We want to create an ecosystem where businesses want to come on their own,” he said.

The study would be done by Doug Gilbert and his Colorado-based firm, Lone Tree Academics. The firm has worked in Campbell County before, conducting a higher
education needs analysis for the county and Gillette College in 2017.

In a presentation for commissioners last week, Gilbert said the study would identify
economic sectors, stakeholders and potential partners to develop a “robust ecosystem” for carbon research. The study would take three to four months and cost about $45,000.

The county hopes to get the city and Energy Capital Economic Development on board.
Gilbert said there are two approaches to economic development: gardening and elephant hunting. The latter involves trying to lure big companies to the community, while the former focuses on cultivating what the economy already has.

“It doesn’t make sense for Gillette to say that we want to be the next place for high-tech coding. We’re not going to recruit Google to open up here,” Christensen said. “Our strategic advantages are energy and our blue collar workforce.”

He gave the example of Boulder, Colorado, which decided years ago to focus on renewable energy. People came to Boulder to do research and over time, businesses followed because of the city’s research talent.

“They wanted to harvest technology that was coming out and develop it,” Christensen said.

The hope is that the same can happen in Campbell County, but with carbon, coal, oil and gas, he said.

Commission Chairman Rusty Bell said there are coal-reliant communities like Colstrip, Montana, that don’t have the population or resources that Gillette has. In the future, Gillette “could be a place for some of those people to come to.”

Although the hope is to become the Silicon Valley of carbon research, Gilbert pointed out that the funding mechanisms will have to be different from the Bay Area.

He gave the example of carbon capture researchers who can’t get money from Silicon Valley venture capitalists because they wanted a 300 percent return in three years.

“With some of this (advanced carbon) technology, you don’t even have a beta out in three years,” Gilbert said. “We need to find financing groups that understand this.”

In addition to bringing in new partners, Bell wondered how the county could begin conversations with the partners it already has, such as the coal companies, to research and develop new technology.

“We have companies that are already here that maybe have (research and development) dollars that they don’t spend. How do we get them involved in this process?” he asked.

Bell said now is the time to move forward on the idea.

“There hasn’t been an appetite for coal for eight years,” Bell said, referring to the Obama administration. “We’ve got to play catch-up.”

The U.S. Department of Energy “wants to send money here,” Christensen said, adding there’s a worry that there could be a new administration in two years that won’t want to invest in coal and carbon.

“When you go listen to other communities that have been left behind, they wish they would’ve started earlier looking at something different,” Bell said. “Nobody else is going to do this for us.”

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