When it comes to energy policy, President-elect Trump has said that his administration would pursue more lax drilling policies that not only make it easier to explore for natural gas but also coal. To that end, the coal must still have a place to go. And with the world using less of it, what kind of future does it have?
As most know, the Obama administration’s emphasis on reducing carbon emissions has made it harder for coal to compete — especially against natural gas, which releases half the carbon dioxide as does coal. The standard for which new coal plants could come into the market has been if they could capture and sequester the carbon dioxide output. That’s the same threshold that Canada just enacted last week.
But that threshold for new plants could change during Trump’s reign. It’s not likely to get scaled back so much that companies are willing to erect coal plants using older technologies that are less efficient. It’s more likely to extend to include advanced technologies that are a whole lot cleaner than those used today, but which are now commercially available.
Improvements could take form in one of two ways. First, the efficiency upgrades could be made to existing coal-fired power plants. Those older and pulverized coal-fired plants are the least efficient units with about 35 percent of the energy input converted to electricity. But as more power generators opt for supercritical units with higher water-side operating pressures the efficiencies associated with pulverized coal units can increase to at least 40 percent. Ultra-supercritical facilities have efficiency rates of 50 percent or more.
Secondly, new plants could be started from scratch, which is probably a more efficient way to approach the issue of reducing carbon emissions. Right now, the supercritical plants are commercial while the ultra-supercritical ones are still in the testing stages.
“Longview demonstrates what modern clean coal-fired plant design and operation can achieve,” says Jeff Keffer, chief executive of Longview Power, which operates a supercritical plant in Morgantown, WV., in an interview. “Longview should be the future of coal – low cost, very clean and highly reliable.”
The “advanced supercritical” plant is four years old and is considered to be one of the cleanest coal plants in the country. The others are owned by American Electric Power, Duke Energy Cleco Power and WE Engeries. (Longview Power provided the chart, which is said it got from a previous SNL Energy story.)
As for the Longview facility, Keffer says that it is averaging 8,850 Btus per kilowatt produced. That compares to 10,500 Btus per kilowatt produced for the average coal plant that is 45 years old. Simply, it means that less coal is put into a furnace to generate more electricity, which decreases all of the pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act; carbon is 20% less than a traditional coal plant.
His overarching point is that coal will remain part of both the global and domestic energy mixes and it would make sense for there to be new investments into advanced technologies to achieve just that. As to whether there would be tax incentives to do so is still out for question. Without them, though, it is hard to see why capitalists would take the risk.
“Even though we’ve known how to build efficient, super-critical coal-fired power plants since the 1960s, most of the coal plants built since then — and a large proportion of the ones being developed today — are of the inefficient, sub-critical kind,” says International Energy Agency’s Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.
Is advanced coal worth it? Combined-cycled natural gas plants are now clearly the path of the least resistance and have even become the preferred method of generating electricity, given that unconventional natural gas sources have become abundant, accessible and inexpensive. With that, those gas units cost about $1 billion for a 800 megawatt facility compared to about $1.4 for the same measurement of advanced coal.
While natural gas is expected to stay cheap for the mid-term, it may not always be that way given that the demand for it only increasing. It’s not just used for power plants in the United States. It’s also potentially used to fuel the transportation sector while it is a valuable feedstock for the manufacturing sector. At the same time, it will soon be increasingly liquefied and shipped to Asia and Europe.
“We are long past a time when modest efficiency changes for burning coal solves the looming climate crisis,” says Bruce Niles, senior director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
President-elect Trump may have prevailed on election day. But it is less clear as to whether the nation will start demanding cleaner coal plants in lieu of the natural gas, renewable and biomass ones that are currently getting erected.