President Trump’s clean coal agenda could get some much-needed clarity as federal advisers take a hard look at advanced technologies to make coal plants more competitive and climate-friendly, as Trump’s plan to repeal regulations will only go so far toward restoring the industry.
Some of the experts slated to lead the discussion at this year’s spring meeting of the National Coal Council, a federal advisory committee, are skeptical about how much Trump can actually do over the next four years to help the coal industry beyond removing regulations.
Eliminating regulations is only a short-term remedy for what ails the coal industry. Removing Obama-era climate regulations would stop some of the planned coal plant retirements while allowing for the construction of newer, more efficient coal plants, which are considered a variant of clean coal technology.
Top consultants say the Trump agenda needs to be paired with a longer-term strategy that looks at more advanced technology such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, which strips carbon pollution from coal plant emissions.
Amid Trump’s promise to roll back climate change rules and withdraw from the Paris climate accord, much of the talk at the March 14-15 meeting will be on ways to make the coal industry more climate-friendly through the use of CCS. But even that isn’t a sure fix, and it won’t have job benefits for years to come, which is Trump’s primary goal.
“I think everything that drives [Trump’s] policy decisions is geared at the top level, first and foremost, to jobs,” said Andy Roberts, research director for energy consultants Wood Mackenzie. “He wants to restore better economic health to the energy industry.”
Roberts will deliver the keynote address, aptly named “Opportunities for Coal in the Trump Administration,” at the coal council meeting, according to the official agenda.
When it comes to Trump’s jobs priorities, Roberts doesn’t see “clean coal” technologies that Trump continues to tout offering much in the way of putting miners back to work, at least not quickly.
“In the short-term, that means unburdening the industry from regulations to the extent [coal] competes on a level playing field,” Roberts said. But clean coal technologies, primarily carbon capture and storage, “don’t really impact employment in the industry in the short term and medium term at all.”
“It’s not economic,” Roberts added. “It’s never going to be economic versus other forms of energy production.” But it may still be necessary, he said, “depending on what the world decides it’s going to do about topics like climate change.”
That’s why the primary thrust of the coal meeting will be focused on CCS and enhancing “the efficiency and emissions profile of our coal fleet,” according to the agenda. However, the focus of the advisory panel in Trump’s first year has not been determined, Janet Gellici, the National Coal Council’s CEO, said before Rick Perry was confirmed as energy secretary Thursday. The coal council reports to the secretary.
The coal council under former President Barack Obama focused on legislative and policy recommendations for advancing CCS and even more advanced technologies that use the carbon to generate additional revenue stream for power plants.
One of the technologies that will be highlighted at this month’s meeting will come from a company that has been collaborating with Exxon Mobil to commercialize a form of CCS technology for reducing emissions at natural gas power plants. The company sees fuel cells as a solution to the next big challenge for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, which is anticipated to be focused on natural gas power plants.
Currently, natural gas-fired plants are taking market share from coal, since they release 60 percent fewer emissions than coal plants. Gas plants, according to Exxon Mobil, are the reason the nation’s emissions are at their lowest in 25 years.
Nevertheless, any advancements in cutting carbon pollution further will stem from advancements that will come from developing CCS at coal plants, said officials with the company FuelCell Energy, which is collaborating with Exxon on CCS. Capturing carbon from natural gas is slightly different than capturing it from coal, but advancements on either would help the other fuel.
Officials with FuelCell Energy will be discussing its projects with the Energy Department, as well as the joint venture it has with Exxon. They say Trump’s focus on manufacturing is good for clean coal, but also for cleaner forms of natural gas that they anticipate being needed further down the road.
“One aspect that we’re certainly encouraged with is the focus on American manufacturing,” said Kurt Goddard, head of investor relations for the company. “Because fuel cells represent American innovation, they represent American manufacturing.”
Fuel cells had support in previous Republican administrations. Former president George W. Bush created the hydrogen fuel cell initiative to wean the nation off its “addiction to oil.” But it’s not clear if Trump might do something similar.
Fuel cells are a highly efficient means of producing electricity. Rather than burning a fuel, like a standard power plant does, they produce electricity through a chemical process using an electrolyte similar to a battery. But instead of charging it as a battery, the electrolyte is refilled. FuelCell Energy’s device concentrates the carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant as part of its electricity-generation process. The process reduces carbon emissions and other pollutants.
It’s also a form of clean energy that is completely made in America, Goddard said. “Our manufacturing facility is actually in Connecticut, whereas some other forms of clean power generation aren’t necessarily made in the U.S.,” he said, explaining why he believes Trump is supportive of CCS. It’s a technology that is evolving, he said, with interest coming from Exxon, the Canadian oil sands and Europe.
Anthony Leo, the company’s vice president for technology and applications, will discuss its fuel cell clean coal project at this month’s meeting, in addition to the natural gas work he is doing with Exxon Mobil. The coal and gas projects are both being done at Southern Co.’s Barry Plant in Alabama.
The projects are in the engineering phase, with construction not expected to begin for about two years. Exxon CEO Darren Woods underscored the project in a blog post last month.
“Our role as the country’s largest producer of natural gas — which emits up to 60 percent less CO2 than coal for power generation — has helped bring CO2 emissions in the United States to the lowest level since the 1990s,” said Woods, who took over after predecessor Rex Tillerson was appointed secretary of state.
“But the world also will need breakthrough clean-energy technologies such as carbon capture and storage,” he said, noting that the company is “investing heavily in CCS, including research in a novel technology that uses fuel cells that could make CCS more affordable and expand its use.”
An Exxon official emphasized to the Washington Examiner that the company’s piece of the project has received no funding or support from the government.
Roberts observed that the future of CCS could very well resemble what is being demonstrated between the fuel cell company and Exxon. He also said the “model” for clean coal could follow what is happening between SpaceX and NASA, where a private company “is driving a lot of our national space exploration activities, right now, at the direction of NASA but with cooperation.”
Roberts sees demand for clean coal technology coming from Europe, where the continent’s climate change policies require the technologies, even if Trump succeeds in exiting from the Paris climate agreement.
“Maybe if the U.S. steps back for a while, the driving factors happen in Europe,” Roberts said.
Coal use is projected to grow globally, and there will be an increasing need for coal power plants to be made more efficient and with fewer emissions, said Benjamin Sporton, the head of the World Coal Association. He was in Washington last month to discuss advancements on coal technology with congressional staffers.
He was also in the U.S. as part of an International Energy Agency industry advisory team meeting with coal companies to get a sense of where they are on technology development, he told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
“For me it’s a continuum,” he said. “It’s not saying let’s leap to CCS today, because CCS is not a technology that is viable for widescale deployment today. It’s about saying how we start on that pathway to get to somewhere further down the track.”
Expanding federal incentives for carbon capture technologies was an idea supported by both parties last year. And a lobbying push by unlikely bedfellows, major coal companies and environmentalists, is gaining steam to move a similar bill in this Congress.
“When utilities, coal companies and environmental groups come together to support your bill, you know you’re onto something that could work,” Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said last year in introducing her bill to expand the coal incentives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
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