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Past, present DOE officials: US coal must look beyond CO2 capture for its future

The U.S. coal industry must look beyond technologies that economically capture carbon dioxide from power plants if the sector wants to maintain its share of electricity generation, past and present officials of the U.S. Department of Energy said at a recent industry conference.

Existing coal-fired power plants must become more efficient, new plants and equipment should replace older generation and new markets for coal outside of the power sector must be developed, said Angelos Kokkinos, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Advanced Fossil Technology Systems. When the Trump administration took over the DOE, Kokkinos told attendees of the American Coal Council's Coal Market Strategies conference on Aug. 8, the agency quickly began focusing on those issues to ensure coal has a future.

"Coal is not going to go away in the next two to three decades," Kokkinos said. "As a result of that, we need to formulate our R&D plan to address the fact that coal is going to be around."

The agency has rolled out a number of initiatives including requests for information on building small modular coal plants that could react flexibly to demand and started partnerships to find new markets for materials extracted from coal.

Addressing coal power's carbon dioxide problem could be more difficult, as carbon capture technologies rolled out so far have proved expensive. Without state or federal policies requiring limits on carbon dioxide emissions, companies face difficulty convincing investors or public officials to allow them to spend money on such technology.

"If there's no regulation, why should they do it?" Kokkinos said.

For carbon capture technology to be successful, it must also incorporate a utilization component, said Charles McConnell, executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University. McConnell, a former assistant secretary for fossil energy at the DOE under the Obama administration, said a plan to capture carbon dioxide and store it "down a rathole" is "a loser." Instead, captured carbon dioxide can be taken to an oilfield and sold for a profit.

Despite being appointed to his role by the previous president, he called Obama's Clean Power Plan "an absolute joke" due to his belief the plan would be costly and result in relatively little benefit to the climate. He said government policies should encourage the development of energy technology and those technologies should inform policies.

"When I came into the Obama administration — inherited the office of fossil fuel — that office was nothing more than the 'Office of Carbon Dioxide Management.' That's all we were doing," McConnell said, pointing to other opportunities for coal technology such as boiler design, efficiency enhancements and other technology. He expects demand for power to continue to grow and said meeting demand in the U.S. and globally will require coal technology cleaner than many of today's power plants.

"If it ain't environmentally responsible, it's not going to be sustainable, not in this world," McConnell said. "Chasing subsidies is not sustainable. ... We have to grow by having every fuel available to us in an environmentally responsible way. If we don't do that, we're not going to hit the mark."