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US interagency effort aims to aid communities impacted by energy transition

➤ Interagency group working toward a transition that is "not leaving folks behind"

➤ Fair energy transition must be tailored to unique communities

➤ New designs for modern coal plants could be deployed in 10 to 15 years

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Brian Anderson, executive director of the Biden administration's Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

U.S. coal production — and the jobs associated with it — has shrunk substantially over the last decade. As the country transitions to cleaner forms of energy, some regions are struggling with the loss of an industry core to local economies.

S&P Global Market Intelligence spoke with Brian Anderson, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Anderson was recently named executive director of the Biden administration's Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization. He said the group faces the challenging task of transitioning to an energy system with lower greenhouse gas emissions and doing so in a way that minimizes harm to communities reliant on fossil fuel extraction. The following conversation is edited for length and clarity.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: Can you tell us about what you're doing with this interagency working group?

Brian Anderson: As the executive director of the Interagency Working Group, my role and the role of the working group itself is to bring together federal resources across 11 different federal agencies, specifically for the economic revitalization of the communities that have historically been mining our coal resources, providing energy and electricity for the country, as well as oil and gas communities as we move through the current and impending energy transition.

Certainly, the coal communities have seen a dramatic decrease in coal production in the United States over the last 10 years, a reduction in the electricity produced from coal and these communities are in fact already hurting. There's already been economic dislocation that's been occurring across the coal communities across the entire country. Our goal at the interagency working group is to bring together those federal resources I mentioned specifically to try to assist with the pathway forward and economic revitalization of those communities, ultimately resulting in certainly some near-term job opportunities, but ultimately, the family-sustaining career opportunities that the energy sector has provided for so many years.

Can you tell us about your experience with coal communities and the historical importance of the sector in those areas?

I'm a native West Virginian. My father grew up in a coal camp. My grandfather was an underground miner.

At the National Energy Technology Laboratory, we manage and steward the entire fossil energy portfolio alongside the Office of Fossil Energy, as well as run the United States' central research organization on things like carbon capture and sequestration, conversion of coal to products. We, at NETL had done the early stage research on horizontal drilling and fracturing technologies. We've been doing [carbon capture utilization and storage] technologies at NETL for over 25 years.

The communities and coal country in West Virginia, North Dakota and Wyoming and Colorado and New Mexico ... are built around the extractive economy. That goes for oil and gas communities as well think well, think Williston, North Dakota. When you build your economy around the extractive industries, if you have a decrease in the extraction rates, the economic dislocations that can occur are pretty significant.

Listen to the full interview with the Energy Evolution podcast. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Many of these communities, where for the last century or half-century have been built around, say, the extraction of coal, the entire economy, the tax base, the base employment comes in and around coal mines. When a coal mine closes, oftentimes the economy takes such a turn for the worse, that you can't sell your house there.

The options for moving to get a job really just aren't there because often you're dislocated not only by the economy but by distance. Then, you're really anchored in the communities and so it leads to many economic and social problems. Our real task is to try to understand each community's unique characteristics — the tools and the resources that the communities have, the skill sets of the workers that want to get to work and what the opportunities are to either move some supply chains and the manufacturing base or to invest in critical infrastructure that might be necessary.

What would you say to policymakers out there who would still rather expend energy fighting climate change policies than working on transition efforts like you're doing with the interagency group?

I think that one of the biggest challenges that we have in navigating the energy transition is, in fact, doing it to where we're not leaving folks behind. One can understand why if the tax base of a certain community, the employment base of a community, is based on the production of coal, why one might fight for keeping coal alive.

But, if you look over the last 10 years, without significant climate change policy, we have seen a significant decrease in coal production largely due to a transition toward natural gas as a power producer. That occurred because of technology change. That occurred because of market principles.

Certainly, there are some policies that folks will point to, the Mercury and Air Toxics rule and things like that. But you know, back with the Clean Air Act, when we were trying to tackle the challenge of acid rain and we were trying to tackle the challenge of NOx emissions leading to smog and mercury emissions, we tackled it through the invention of technology.

I think that the answer is to take a holistic approach. That's what we're trying to do. Develop the technologies that, in fact, lead to a resilient and reliable grid for us, and that includes on-demand firm power resources that can be continued to be decarbonized.

Some people out there may imagine just dropping wind and solar resources in the place of coal in these communities. Can you tell us about the challenge of tailoring these energy transition approaches?

When we think about replacing the coal and natural gas electricity generation that we have across the country, well the solar resource is not the same, the wind resource is not the same, blanketing the entire country. The energy transition itself, it's not going to be uniform, from region to region. So the energy transition itself needs to be tailored to each region and will be.

The job creation opportunities are a little more short-term, in some respects, when it comes to wind and solar as two particular examples unless we really change the supply chain structure that we have. Frankly, right now, many of the solar panels that are installed in the United States, if you track their supply chain of manufacturing, those supply chains are not all in the United States.

When you track the supply chain for coal or natural gas to power from the mine ... most of that supply chain is in the U.S. We do need to closely examine some of the incentives of how we deploy the replacement, renewable energy technologies using supply chains that might, in fact, be able to run through the United States.

How much room is there for coal mining activities to continue under the Biden administration? Are we going to see new coal-fired power plants with carbon capture in the coming years?

Just to be frank and honest, there's an economic uphill battle for the coal fleet to build new coal-fired power generation. However, there are some new technologies that we've been working on with partnerships — a whole set of front-end engineering designs on what the power plant of the future could look like.

One is a coal-burning power plant that can do load following. So as the grid becomes more variable and requires more load-following capabilities on firm power, [we're] designing coal-burning power plants that can do load-following much, much better. Ones that are designed from the start for carbon capture and sequestration, ones that are flexible in their input that can actually blend in some biomass and potentially become net negative carbon. Those are a set of designs we're working on in the Department of Energy with project partners around the country that is showing some real potential for deployment out in that 10- to 15-year time frame.

Thinking of the goals of the Biden administration, pointing toward 2035 as net-zero on the grid, then those technologies, both carbon capture and sequestration, the new potential coal-burning generation assets that might be smaller, more flexible, that might be able to be a bit more distributed, I think that there's the possibility for that future to continue.

We can't just flip the switch today and shut coal down tomorrow. That's not going to happen. A coherent plan for the pathway for the energy transition includes coal in the near term and potentially the opportunity for carbon capture in the future.