County wants out, so Utah may step in and buy coal country science lab

“We either buy it, or it’s gone,” legislator says of San Rafael Energy Research Center.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Glove Box at the San Rafael Research Center, in Emery County near Orangeville, in 2022. State legislators are considering a bill for a state takeover of the center, which Emery County has struggled to make self-sufficient.

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Utah legislators are looking to spend $2 million to buy Emery County’s San Rafael Energy Research Center, the east-central county’s shot at finding an economic future for the state’s coal country.

The center, which includes a former warehouse converted to laboratories on 30 acres west of Orangeville (population 1,200), would become the San Rafael State Energy Lab under a bill sponsored by Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, whose district includes the lab and nearby coal-fired power plants.

“It is time for us to have it grow up and be ready for the world,” Watkins recently told colleagues on the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee.

Emery County commissioners started the research center several years ago, and it has struggled to draw researchers to a remote lab that is hours away from universities and industry along the Wasatch Front.

The 2022 election saw two of the three commissioners replaced, and those newcomers have been firm that funding a scientific research lab is too risky for a county of fewer than 10,000 people.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, a former San Juan County commissioner who had early involvement in the center, worried that a state-run lab would be less responsive to rural wants and needs.

“My concern, chair, is turning this into a state-owned facility. It basically becomes another administrative function of the governor’s office,” said Lyman, who is running this year against Gov. Spencer Cox for the Republican nomination for governor. “With the state stepping in, do we lose the local control of that asset?”

“They don’t want it anymore,” Watkins answered . “It’s either we buy it, or it’s gone.”

The $2 million price reflects the money that the county has invested in the center, Watkins said, meaning the state’s purchase would let the county recover that investment.

“It is literally a break even from what they’ve put into it,” she said, adding that “the state has already put a substantial amount of money into this lab.”

The bill also includes $1 million in ongoing funding for the next fiscal year. Watkins said the hope after that is that the lab can be self-sustaining, relying on research grants and industry contracts to cover costs. But, she added, “if we have to, we’ll come back” for further state aid

Under Watkins’ measure, the center would be managed under the Utah Office of Energy Development. A nine-member board would be appointed to oversee it. One member would come from that office, either the director or the director’s designee. Three members would be appointed by the Utah Board of Higher Education. One member from a rural county would be appointed by the governor, and the House speaker and Senate president would each choose two members.

Jeremy Pearson, who has been the research center’s director since 2022, said two Brigham Young University professors with U.S. Department of Energy funding are still the two principal researchers at the center, but “we’ve got some really good irons in the fire.”

He said Utah State University mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Hailei Wang and the center have submitted a grant application to the DOE for $1 million to study thermal storage in molten salts. By heating up the salts to hundreds of degrees, they can essentially function as a battery, storing heat energy that can be recovered later.

Molten salt storage is part of the plans for TerraPower’s nuclear reactors, which one day could find a home in Emery County as a replacement for the coal plants.

Pearson said the heat from molten salt storage also could be useful in food processing, and the center is looking for partners to explore that application.

The committee approved Watkins’ bill unanimously, sending it to the full House.

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