By Tina Casey
April 15, 2019 - The Trump administration has made a few stabs at stemming the tide of coal power plant closures in the U.S., and none have come to fruition. Now it looks like they’re just plain giving up. The new idea is to downsize coal power plants and shoehorn them into the modern grid of the future alongside renewable energy.
That’s going to be a tough row to hoe. Small scale, decentralized power is already at hand in the form of wind and solar power. New wind-solar hybrids and energy storage will also be competing against this ambitious new breed of coal power plants for space on the grid.
Why Tiny New Coal Power Plants? DERS!
The U.S. Department of Energy has committed a $100 million R&D initiative for new technology to support a new generation of small scaled coal power plants, so this is a thing that is happening.
Basically, the Energy Department has recognized that the old model of a grid based on large, centralized power plants is, well, old.
To take its place, the Energy Department envisions a modern, 21st century grid model that leans on distributed energy resources, aka DERS, for reliability and resilience.
Flexibility is a key factor in the new grid, because the Energy Department anticipates ever-increasing amounts of wind and solar to be in play (yes they do, despite what the Commander-in-Chief* has to say about wind power).
That pretty much leaves conventional coal power plants out of the loop. They are like the equivalent of a one-speed bike when everyone else is working with at least 10 speeds.
In terms of competing for grid space, natural gas power plants are in a better place because they are more responsive to supply and demand. Gas stakeholders have been quick to make the case that gas beats coal when the aim is to integrate more renewables into the grid.
Yet Another Hail Mary For Coal Power Plants
So, in addition to fending away competition from wind and solar, the coal power plants of the future will have to face ongoing threats from natural gas technology.
In that context, the new $100 million round of funding is a lifeline. It comes under the umbrella of the optimistically monikered Coal FIRST initiative, for “Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, and Transformative.”
Sure looks like they’ve taken a page out of the wind and solar handbook, right?
In describing the program, Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes said as much. “The Department’s Coal FIRST initiative is helping the Nation secure its domestic power supply by developing plants that are not only more reliable, resilient, efficient, and near zero emissions, but that can adapt to the changing electrical grid,” he said.
What About Carbon Emissions?
Yes, what about them. Reducing carbon emissions is not an afterthought. It is one of the key requirements for Coal FIRST projects. According to the Energy Department, Coal FIRST projects must “have near zero emissions with carbon dioxide (CO2) capture.”
That’s kind of weird, considering that the U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Nevertheless, that’s what the Energy Department is looking for.
As a first step for Coal FIRST, the Energy Department has put down $1.95 million for a group of 13 conceptual designs that “look beyond today’s utility-scale power plant concepts.”
The awards support the Coal FIRST objective on carbon emissions. For example, one of the 13 recipients is a company called 8 Rivers Capital. Its chief product is a power plant with built in carbon capture called the Allam Cycle.
Meanwhile, Renewable Energy
In the race for zero emission electricity, the big question mark is how the new mini-plants can compete on cost with next-generation renewables when they are front-loaded with expensive carbon capture equipment.
One solution is to convert carbon emissions into other products, which would help offset the cost. One of the 13 recipients, called Hydrogen Energy California, points in that direction. A few years ago, the company proposed a system for burning coal and petcoke that combines carbon capture, hydrogen production, and enhanced oil recovery.
Meanwhile, coal has some catching up to do in other areas. Solar obviously has a head start in the small scale department, and the Energy Department still has high hopes for micro wind turbines and small scale wind.
Another key goal Coal FIRST is to “transform how coal power plant technologies are designed and manufactured.” That’s another area in which solar technology has a running start, especially in the thin film sector.
Mini Coal Power Plants To The Rescue, Maybe
All things being equal, a new fleet of flexible, nimble, zero-ish emission coal power plants is better than the old clunkers in operation today. However, competing for kilowatt dollars against renewables and natural gas in the free market is a different kettle of fish.
Just a wild guess, but the free market will not be particularly kind to coal power, zero emissions or not. Ratepayers and investors are becoming reluctant to tie themselves to the coal ash baggage cart among other issues.
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to see how downscaling the nation’s fleet of coal power plants will bring back coal jobs, as the Commander-in-Chief* has often promised.
The export market could offer some relief, if only global demand for U.S. coal holds up — which it isn’t, according to an April 9 update from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
In any case, coastal cities are pushing back against new coal export terminals, so there’s that.
Speaking of hydrogen (always a fascinating subject!), Hydrogen Energy California’s showcase project seems to be stuck in 2013. CleanTechnica is reaching out for an update so stay tuned for that.