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Economic carbon capture 'just over the horizon,' DOE tells coal industry


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Economic carbon capture 'just over the horizon,' DOE tells coal industry

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Lou Hrkman, deputy assistant secretary for clean coal and carbon management with the U.S. Department of Energy, gives a presentation on federal efforts to support advanced coal technology projects at a coal conference held by the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance Inc. and the Southern States Energy Board on May 20, 2019.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Economical, carbon-free, fossil fuel energy generation is just over the horizon, a U.S. Department of Energy official told the crowd at a coal industry conference May 20.

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Energy is embracing the use of coal as just one of a vast array of energy resources available in the U.S., said Lou Hrkman, deputy assistant secretary for clean coal and carbon management with the DOE. Improved technology to burn coal would not only potentially create jobs in the U.S. but could also be exported to create markets for coal abroad, Hrkman said at "Embarking on Coal's New Era," a program hosted by the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance Inc. and the Southern States Energy Board on May 20.

"I cannot emphasize enough the role fossil energy plays in every American daily life," Hrkman said. "Affordable energy is central to the way of life and the economic well-being of every American. Reliable and cheap energy is a strategic advantage for America's economy."

Steven Winberg, DOE assistant secretary for fossil energy, made a similar speech at the Eastern Fuel Buyers Conference in Orlando earlier in the month in favor of coal use. Hrkman said that because the rest of the world is "hungry for energy from all sources," carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is not going to change without advancing the technology for burning coal.

"No matter where you are on the spectrum of the climate issue, from 'it's a hoax' to 'we'll all be dead in 12 years,' if you think CO2 is a problem today, it will not get better without the carbon capture technologies we are developing at DOE. Coal in 2040 will produce more electrons than renewables."

The agency is taking a "holistic approach" to reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants that includes developing carbon capture technology, boosting the viability and efficiency of the existing fleet, and facilitating the design of new coal-fired power plants. By working to increase the efficiency of a power plant, the overall costs of carbon capture technology can also be reduced. Many utilities have deemed the technology too expensive, opting for cheaper renewable or gas-fired generation instead. However, carbon capture technologies are quickly advancing, Hrkman told the crowd of coal industry representatives and state lawmakers.

"U.S taxpayers have invested nearly $4.0 billion in [carbon capture, utilization and storage]," Hrkman said. "The payoff for those investments, carbon-free fossil energy, is just over the horizon."

The current cost of capturing carbon dioxide is about $47/ton, Hrkman said. The DOE's goal is to cut that cost to about $30/ton, at which point the technology becomes more economically viable for use on a coal-fired power plant.

"These are all amazing technologies that we're excited about and excited about getting them out to the market. And the good news is, we have time to make this transition," Hrkman said. "We've got a lot of work to do to make this happen."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., supports the development of carbon capture technology and said she and her colleagues are looking at ways to encourage that development. Speaking at the same conference, Capito said that despite coal having lots of friends in Congress, it also has an uphill struggle to move forward with legislation supportive of the coal industry.

"The United States, we're the leader here to be able to move us forward so we can strike a balance between the economy and the environment," Capito said. "That's a very, very hard sweet spot to hit."

The idea of advancing carbon capture technologies and building more nimble coal-fired power plants could prove critical to the survival of much of the coal industry in the U.S. as utilities continue to transition to other sources for generating power. It is time for the coal sector to begin looking at "transformational systems" that allow coal to compete with gas and renewables with little to no emissions, said Kenneth Nemeth, the Southern States Energy Board's secretary and executive director.

"Coal is everywhere. And it does so much in this nation," Nemeth said. "We need a greater public outreach to educate people about the critical role coal plays in their everyday lives."