Michael D. Mann
Michael D. Mann

In an era of fracking for oil and natural gas and growth in solar and wind power, who knew the plain old coal plant could have value in a carbon-constrained world?

And yet, coal generation has turned out to be a surprising bright spot in energy tech’s universe of late. Evidence of that came in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) far-sighted “Coal FIRST” initiative, which aims to develop small, modular coal plants of the future that can adapt to the changing electric grid and produce power with near-zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Launched in 2018, Coal FIRST is just the kind of innovative, advanced energy technology that both the United States and the world needs. Some of the changes in coal technology that are envisioned portend potentially momentous shifts for the coal industry and energy producers.

Under Coal FIRST, DOE has earmarked up to $100 million for coal research and development projects. Developing conceptual designs for the new coal plants is the opening act. Thirteen projects were selected last year for early-stage research and development.

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Why pick coal, when it appears to be no match against natural gas and renewables? In recent years, coal has been unable to compete with cheap gas in large parts of the country, leading to the shutdown of scores of coal plants and mines. Truth is, many politicians prefer natural gas. But gas alone won’t be enough to meet demand for low-carbon energy in the years ahead, certainly not globally. Though the U.S. is increasing the use of natural gas, most countries don’t have that option. Unlike the U.S., they don’t have abundant natural gas resources.

Renewable energy sources are seeing significant growth. But wind and solar combined currently account for less than 10 percent of the U.S. electricity production. Further developments in energy storage technology -- for use on days when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining and significant changes in the structure of our nation’s electric grid -- will be required before renewables can become a major source of electricity.

That takes us back to coal. The only way around the limitations of renewables is to make better use of coal through technology, at a reasonably competitive price. Interestingly, the primary force behind DOE’s decision to launch Coal FIRST is the need for power on demand to complement the peaks and valleys that come with solar and wind power. Coal plants that are flexible and carbon-neutral would ensure that our nation’s energy mix remains balanced, while providing the fuel security that undergirds our grid reliability.

The new generation of coal plants will be small compared to conventional coal plants, ranging from 50 to 350 megawatts. But they will have high overall efficiency – 40 percent or greater heating value than today’s plants – and consume less water. Another feature of Coal FIRST is that the plants will be capable of stacking if demand for electricity is higher than anticipated. With the ability to capture carbon for underground storage, new coal plants will be on target to provide electricity in the years ahead with near zero-carbon emissions.

Globally, we use far more coal today than in the past. Hundreds of new coal plants are planned or already under construction around the world, mainly in Asia. Affordable and secure, coal is going to remain the fuel of choice in many nations well into the future -- and we can supply the technology needed to burn it cleanly. This means the international market for U.S. energy technology can continue to grow.

Michael D. Mann is executive director of the Institute for Energy Studies at UND’s College of Engineering and Mines.