DOE Set to Support Small Modular Coal Units

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wants to know whether small-scale, modular coal-fired power plants are feasible. The DOE this week put out a request for information on how to accomplish such projects, following on its announcement earlier this year that it wants to establish funding opportunities for new coal technologies in an effort to prop up the industry.

“The objective of this RFI [Request for Information] is to support DOE’s mission to lead research and technology development that promotes the advancement of coal-fired power plants that provide stable power generation with operational flexibility, high efficiency, and low emissions,” according to the DOE announcement made May 8. Among the details: a design that has a lower cost than traditional coal plants, capability to be load-following, and with an efficiency higher than 40%, well above the current average of 33% for a traditional coal plant. (The efficiency of a power plant is measured as the percentage of the total energy content of that plant’s fuel that is converted into electricity.)

Steve Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the DOE, in March told the news group Axios at an energy conference in Houston, Texas, that the agency was prepared to set up funding opportunities for small-scale coal units. “If we’re successful with these small modular coal plants … that could be a paradigm shift” for coal, Winberg said. President Trump has made supporting coal a priority of his administration and earmarked $175 million to develop new coal technologies in the fiscal 2019 budget.

“It’s good to see government support to spur coal power plant innovation, which is needed to insure low cost, clean and reliable energy,” Joe Govreau, vice president research-metals and minerals at Industrial Info Resources, told POWER. But Govreau noted the move may not have a major impact on the industry. “At 50 MW–350 MW, modular units could provide efficiency and cost benefits, but probably wouldn’t have significant impact on coal demand given the number of coal-fired unit retirements/closures being considered and the length of time this would take to get to the commercial stage (5–10 years). It’s an interesting concept and definitely welcomed by the industry.”

The modular plan has plenty of skeptics, particularly since U.S. power generation continues to move toward more renewables and gas-fired resources, and away from coal and nuclear power even as the DOE supports efforts to make the resources more viable in the face of opposition.

“The fact that the Trump administration is trying this new small-scale coal push isn’t surprising, since the Trump administration has always had difficulty with facts, standards, and basic economics,” Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, told POWER. “Making smaller coal plants doesn’t make coal cheaper or cleaner, it just forces the public to again subsidize a dangerous fuel source of the past. Neither communities nor utilities want dirty, expensive coal when clean energy is more affordable and creates more jobs right now.”

The DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy said it wants submissions on the request for information by 8 p.m. Eastern time on June 8. Responses can be submitted to DE-FOA-0001931@netl.doe.gov with the subject line “DE-FOA-0001931 – RFI.”

Building small, modular units is already a practice of the nuclear industry, which has developed small modular reactors (SMRs) in an effort to reduce the complexity of producing nuclear power. It’s not clear whether a modular approach would help a coal plant, which does not have the same level of complexity as a nuclear facility, but that’s apparently at least partly what the DOE wants to learn.

Whether smaller-scale coal plants make economic sense is another matter, particularly as the cost of producing renewable energy comes down, and natural gas prices remain at near-historic lows, well under $3/MMBtu.

DOE in its RFI called the modular design the “power plants of the future” and said it wants input on developing pilot versions of such plants that could be built by 2025. “The coal-based pilot plant will be used as the basis for scaling up to a commercial offering that is highly efficient (40 percent or greater higher heating value), modular (unit sizes of approximately 50 to 350 [MW]), and economical for both international and domestic power generation,” the request said. There was no mention of carbon capture technology in the RFI, something the administration has previously touted as a way to help coal-fired power generation remain viable, and which has bipartisan support in Congress. A recent study from Stanford University, published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, said carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is commercially feasible with existing technology and could be profitable.

Only two CCS power plants currently operate worldwide: the Petra Nova plant in Texas, POWER’s Plant of the Year in 2017, and the Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, near the North Dakota border. Boundary Dam was named POWER’s Plant of the Year in 2015. A third project, at the Kemper County plant in Mississippi, never began commercial operation, as Mississippi Power suspended the gasification process and today operates the plant as a natural gas–fired combined cycle facility.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).