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DOE: Coal must 'evolve with the grid,' lower carbon capture costs

A U.S. Department of Energy official called on carbon capture representatives to cut the technology's cost in half to save a struggling coal sector.

Steven Winberg, assistant secretary for the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy, told industry leaders they need to slash costs associated with capturing carbon emitted from fossil fuel plants to $30 per ton. Speaking at an Oct. 4 Carbon Utilization Research Council meeting, he said he remains confident that continued research into the field will lower the price but noted more needs to be done to "accelerate the effort."

"We've got to get the cost down so that fossil energy, whether it's coal or natural gas, remains viable," Winberg said.

The department is working to ensure the energy grid's reliability and resiliency, he said, because it is "unrealistic" to consider removing coal from the nation's energy mix. While there is no "silver bullet" to boost the coal industry, doing so will require technological advancements, policy and regulatory solutions to put coal "on a much stronger footing than it is on today."

That will require carbon capture and storage as well as utilization technologies to reduce emissions from burning coal, Winberg said. The technology, along with the 45Q tax credits and strong oil prices, "starts to make a business case" for commercial options.

"Coal needs to evolve with the grid," he said. "... And I think in order to actually get a plant built, it needs to be near zero emissions."

Many attending the energy event called for more funding for carbon capture research and development so the technology can be deployed commercially. Charles Zelek, a senior economist with the DOE's fossil energy office, said the department completed a study on the potential economic impacts of the 45Q tax credits and research and development.

The analysis, which has not yet been released, revealed that investment could yield 400,000 full-time jobs from 2020 to 2050, he said, helping offset the 91,000 coal jobs lost in Appalachia.

Energy research and development in fossil fuels is "high risk, high reward," Zelek said, but coal is projected to remain a significant player in the energy sector through 2050.

"Any improvements that we have in the environmental performance or the business performance in these utilities, in these units, throughout that time period is going to have significant impacts," Zelek said.

Lou Hrkman, deputy assistant secretary for clean coal and carbon management in the DOE, cited the Petra Nova post-combustion carbon capture facility near Houston as proof that the technology has developed over the last decade.

"The world needs this technology, it really does," Hrkman said. "And if anybody's serious about capturing carbon, reducing carbon, the United States is going to be the one that's going to lead the way."

The government passed legislation that included tens of millions of dollars for carbon capture development last month, though President Donald Trump's administration has also proposed slashing research funding in the past.

Part of the DOE's strategy to help the coal sector includes "embracing technology and innovation over regulation" to increase the fuel's competitiveness in the changing grid, Winberg said. Coal-fired power plants will need to be smaller, more efficient and spread out across the nation to complement renewable energy sources.

The DOE is also working on replacing the Clean Power Plan and reforming the New Source Review program, "but more needs to be done to provide clarity and certainty and to reduce regulatory burdens on operators," Winberg said.