Grid without coal a ‘fantasy’ — DOE

Source: Dylan Brown, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, April 13, 2018

The Department of Energy’s top fossil fuel official today asked industry leaders to help the Trump administration make the case for continuing coal’s “comeback.”

Steven Winberg, assistant secretary overseeing DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, touted last year’s dramatic coal export surge and regulatory cuts as signs of optimism at the spring meeting of the National Coal Council.

“We have a president who wants to revive coal, not revile it,” said Winberg, the designated government officer for the federal advisory panel.

While Winberg’s office focuses on researching the next generation of coal plants, DOE has focused on how to save the existing coal fleet.

“In a number of ways, we’re seeing a comeback for coal,” Winberg said. “We still have a long way to go.”

In a recent letter, Energy Secretary Rick Perry requested NCC to prepare “a report on optimizing the existing coal fleet to ensure a reliable and resilient power grid.”

“We’re very glad that the department, the secretary and you are aligned with that thinking, because there is really nothing more important, from our perspective,” said Deck Slone, who oversees public policy and strategy for Arch Coal Inc.

NCC elected Slone as the group’s new chairman today.

Winberg acknowledged it won’t be “easy” to stem the takeover of natural gas and renewable energies. Construction of new coal plants basically stopped in the 1970s, he said, leaving 80 percent of the existing fleet more than 40 years old.

“We need to make sure that they can operate until the next generation of coal-fired power plants can be commercialized and come online,” he said.

DOE has been searching for a way to help coal plants since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission struck down its proposed subsidy for coal and nuclear facilities.

“Leveling the playing field is not a subsidy for coal as some would argue,” Winberg said. “It’s removing artificial, ideologically motivated barriers to the use of an abundant energy resource that remains critical to our grid and our energy security.”

That was the argument FERC rejected last year, but Winberg touted a controversial new National Energy Technology Laboratory study that coal utilities are already using to validate their claims that coal plants kept lights and heat on during the recent “bomb cyclone” extreme cold-weather events (Greenwire, April 2).

“The idea that we can take a critical generation source like coal offline doesn’t make sense and is, in fact, a fantasy,” Winberg said.

Perry has also asked NCC to prepare a white paper, due out this fall, on how to find new markets abroad for American coal.

Exports were a bright spot for the U.S. coal industry last year as shipments jumped 58 percent from 2016 — the largest single-year increase since 2001.

Carbon capture and sequestration is still a focus for DOE, with bipartisan support in Congress, but the first step often remains cost-prohibitive.

“The big nut to crack here is reducing the cost of capture,” Winberg said. “We’re hoping we can reduce it by about 50 percent. We think we can.”

Meanwhile, the department is looking into small modular coal plants that could be exported to developing nations and coal uses beyond combustion — carbon fiber and rare-earth element extraction.

Winberg said the goal is to ensure that “coal’s next chapter is as robust as its past.”