Energy Department Calls for Smaller, Modular Coal Power Plants

Published April 30, 2018

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is planning to help develop smaller, modular, coal-fired power plants that are more efficient and flexible than larger facilities.

DOE’s budget justification document, explaining the cost of programs the department expects to undertake in the coming year, states the agency is seeking private sector partners to develop at least two designs of small, modular coal plants by 2022.

DOE’s budget requests $175 million to develop the new higher-efficiency coal generators. DOE would pay for the new designs in part through funds shifted from its program to develop carbon capture and sequestration technologies. This program has received an 80 percent funding cut since 2017.

Traditionally, larger coal-fired generators have been more efficient than small ones. Steve Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil fuel energy at DOE, discussed the department’s goal of modular, flexible coal plants at a Cambridge Energy Research Associates conference held in Houston March 5 through 9. Winberg told reporters if DOE and its private partners can successfully develop small, modular coal plants, coal could potentially provide supplemental power during periods of peak usage power and regulate or supplement the variable power flow from renewables, similar to the way many natural gas plants operate today.

Regulatory Challenges to Coal

Researching new coal plant designs is a good idea, says Fred Palmer, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News. However, it may not be enough to rescue the U.S. coal mining industry from potentially lethal damage already inflicted by the federal government, Palmer says.

“Developing smaller, modular coal plants might be worthwhile, but they alone will not return coal to the place it used to occupy in U.S. energy production,” said Palmer. “The challenges coal faces competing in the market are regulatory.

“The Trump administration has withdrawn the Obama administration’s Clean Coal Plan, which amounted to a ‘No Coal Plan,’ but coal still faces regulation under a controversial 2009 finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide emissions endanger public health,” Palmer said. “Unless the Trump administration reverses EPA’s finding carbon dioxide emissions are a threat to human health, coal, natural gas, all fossil fuel energy is endangered.

Palmer says federal regulations make it too costly for power plants to improve their energy efficiency.

“Existing coal plant operators would like to utilize currently available technology to improve plant efficiency, but under the EPA’s New Source Review permitting program any power plant that produces 250 tons of carbon dioxide per year must meet costly requirements when retrofitting plants,” said Palmer.

‘Let the Market Choose’

Larry Bell, a professor at the University of Houston and a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, says the market, not government regulations or taxpayer support, should drive our energy choices.

“Coal has played a vital role in power production for a long time,” said Bell. “When it comes to energy, we should let the market choose the most efficient form of energy. Let the best technology win without government intervention. Sometimes that will be coal, sometimes it won’t be.”

Joe Barnett ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.