DOE to fund ‘Coal FIRST’ initiative, critics say it’s political not practical

Source: By Robert Walton, Utility Dive • Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2018

  • The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy intends to fund competitive research and development of next-generation coal facilities in Fiscal Year 2019, as part of the federal government’s ongoing efforts to support the struggling coal industry.
  • DOE dubbed its efforts the Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small and Transformative) initiative. The agency said it envisions a coal fleet of small units, sized 50 MW to 350 MW, with high efficiency and close-to-zero emissions.
  • DOE says it plans to issue three competitively-funded R&D efforts, which may ultimately culminate in the “design, construction and operation of a coal-based pilot-scale power plant.” Opponents of costly coal development have their doubts, while proponents say the fuel remains essential.

The federal government is intent on supporting the coal industry. While coal plants continue to shutter and plans to save them are stalling, the Trump administration can still point to deregulation and research funding for progress.

But with renewables on the rise, gas cheap and battery prices falling, can anything save coal at this point?

“No one is going to build a coal plant in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Its operational characteristics  aren’t consistent with what utilities need,” John Coequyt, Sierra Club’s global climate policy director, told Utility Dive.

DOE has laid out numerous traits it wants future coal plants to have, and will direct research to focus on plants that reduce water use, are capable of high ramp rates and minimum loads, have near-zero emissions, can also burn natural gas and and are at least 40% efficient.

“This is what the [coal] industry should have done 20 years ago — try and solve all their environmental and operational challenges,” said Coequyt.

A recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) predicts the U.S. will retire 15.4 GW of coal capacity this year, representing 44 generation units across 22 plants. By 2024, an additional 21.4 GW of coal capacity will go offline, according to IEEFA.

DOE announced its inquiry into coal-plant improvements in May, aiming to make them moreefficient, flexible and reliable. President Donald Trump campaigned on rebuilding the declining industry, and his administration has backed multiple research initiatives into long-term improvements.

DOE expects to release a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking “conceptual design for coal-based power plants of the future and an option to conduct a preliminary front end engineering design,” sometime this month.

That would be followed by a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for cost-shared research and development focused on steam turbines that can be integrated into a 50 MW to 350 MW “future advanced coal plant design.” DOE expects to issue the announcement in the second quarter of next year. And a FOA for cost-shared R&D projects focused on critical components and advanced approaches will likely have two closings. The announcement is expected in the third quarter of FY2019.

In its announcement, DOE said the Coal FIRST initiative “will make coal-fired power plants in the future more adaptive to the modern electrical grid.”

Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents major coal producers, said the group is “very supportive of demonstration technology of small, modular coal units.”

“We certainly think this is a step in the right direction,” Bloodworth told Utility Dive. “We do need a coal fleet for the future, for reliability, resilience, affordability and diversity.

But DOE’s description of future coal is a fair ways off from the current reality.

Their wish list is “a pretty tall order for a coal power plant,” Coequyt said. “I’m sure there are companies willing to take federal money to consider some of these issues, but right now no one is even considering building a coal plant in the U.S. because they are way-too costly, and some of the elements [in DOE’s vision] would substantially add to cost.”

Coequyt remains skeptical of the long-term future for coal — and the Trump administration’s motives.

“Almost certainly, it’s a statement that goes out to the part of the America electorate focused on trying to hold on to the coal industry,” he said. Politicians “use it as a sign that they are engaged, even if it’s not a serious effort.”