DOE Office Will Fund R&D for ‘Coal Plant of the Future’

The Office of Fossil Energy (FE) in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) this week said it will fund research and development (R&D) efforts “that will advance first-of-a-kind coal generation technologies.”

The FE on November 13 said its Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, Transformative) program “will develop the coal plant of the future needed to provide secure stable, and reliable power.” The group said it wants to support R&D into coal-fired power plants “capable of flexible operations to meet the needs of the grid; use innovative and cutting-edge components that improve efficiency and reduce emissions; provide resilient power to Americans; are small compared to today’s conventional utility-scale coal; and will transform how coal technologies are designed and manufactured.”

The funding is for the federal government’s fiscal year 2019, which began October 1 of this year and continues through September 2019.

Coal-fired power generation has fallen in the U.S. in recent years, with increased generation from gas-fired units and renewable energy resources such as sold and wind. The Trump administration, though, supports coal-fired generation and has worked to support coal plants, including rejecting the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and rolling back some rules on power plant emissions, wastewater discharges, and disposal and storage of coal combustion residuals, or coal ash.

Coal plant retirements have continued despite the federal government’s actions; most recently, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. said it will retire its last five coal-fired units in Indiana over the next decade as it transitions to renewables. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said its most recent data shows about 17,000 MW of coal generation capacity was retired between January 2017 and June 2018—about 6,300 MW in 2017, and about 10,650 MW in the first six months of 2018.

Improving Plant Efficiency

The DOE, in a news release Tuesday announcing its program, said “wide-scale retirements of the nation’s existing fleet of coal-fired power plants—without replacement—may lead to a significant undermining of the resiliency of America’s electricity supply. Nevertheless, the need for considerable dispatchable generation, critical ancillary services, and grid reliability—combined with potentially higher future natural gas prices, and energy security concerns, such as the importance of onsite fuel availability during extreme weather events—create the opportunity for advanced coal-fired generation, for both domestic and international deployment.”

Analysts in recent months have said coal plants must adapt and become more flexible to survive in the current and future energy landscape.

Angelos Kokkinos, director of Advanced Fossil Technology Systems at the DOE, earlier this year at the MEGA Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland, said his group’s R&D is focused on “advancing small-scale modular coal plants of the future, which are highly efficient and flexible, with near-zero emissions. They must be small, nimble units located close to the source of renewable energy. Renewable energy is not a fad, it’s not going away. We have to adapt to that. We need coal plants that are available all the time [to provide power].”

The DOE on Tuesday said some of the attributes of the nation’s future coal fleet could include:

    • High overall plant efficiency (40%+ HHV or higher at full load, with minimal reductions in efficiency over the required generation range).


    • Small (unit sizes of approximately 50 to 350 MW), maximizing the benefits of high-quality, low-cost shop fabrication to minimize field construction costs, and project cycle time.


    • Near-zero emissions, with options to consider plant designs that inherently emit no or low amounts of carbon dioxide (amounts that are equal to or lower than natural gas technologies) or could be retrofitted with carbon capture without significant plant modifications.


    • Capable of high ramp rates and minimum loads commensurate with estimates of renewable market penetration by 2050.


    • Integration with thermal or other energy storage (e.g., chemical production) to ease intermittency inefficiencies and equipment damage.


    • Minimized water consumption.


    • Reduced design, construction, and commissioning schedules from conventional norms by leveraging techniques including but not limited to advanced process engineering and parametric design methods for modular design.


    • Enhanced maintenance features including technology advances with monitoring and diagnostics to reduce maintenance and minimize forced outages.


    • Integration with coal upgrading, or other plant value streams (e.g., co-production), and capable of natural gas co-firing.

The DOE said it plans to issue three competitively funded R&D efforts in fiscal year 2019, with a goal of supporting the design, construction, and operation of a coal-fired pilot-scale power plant. It said the effort will include:

    • 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 (Pre-FEED). To achieve this end, DOE encourages broad teaming arrangements that engage A/E firms, technology developers, equipment manufacturers, and end users.  The solicitation is anticipated to be issued in November 2018.


    • A Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for cost-shared research and development R&D projects focused on steam turbines that can be integrated into a 50-350 MW future advanced coal plant design. The FOA is anticipated to be issued in the second quarter of fiscal year 2019.


    • A FOA for cost-shared R&D projects focused on critical components and advanced approaches (e.g., manufacturing, fabrication, advanced design) that are needed to support a future coal plant. This FOA is expected to have two closings.  The objectives and scope of the first closing will be informed by the conceptual designs completed under contracts awarded under the RFP. Likewise, the objectives and scope of the second closing will be informed by the Pre-FEED studies completed under contracts awarded under the RFP.  The FOA is anticipated to be issued in the third quarter of FY 2019.


The agency also said it wants the Coal FIRST initiative to make future coal-fired power plants more adaptive to the modern electrical grid. It said the program, as it finds “innovative technologies and advanced approaches to design and manufacturing,” will “look beyond today’s utility-scale power plant concepts [such as baseload units] in ways that integrate with the electrical grid in the United States and internationally.”

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

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