US Aims Another Hail Mary At Coal, Hits Natural Gas Instead

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Hey, remember back in the 19th century when the US tried to save its once-booming whale oil industry? No such luck, right? The whale oil industry went from being the fifth-largest sector of the US economy to practically zero in just a few decades. There are a bunch of good reasons for that, but they all boil down to one thing: US investment dollars — and US workers — moved on to take advantage of innovations in other fields. That’s a lesson the coal industry and its backers in the Trump Administration have yet to learn, going by some recent, desperate attempts to salvage the industry.

A $32 Million Hail Mary For The US Coal Industry

Working backwards from the latest development, last Thursday the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy announced a new round of $32 million funding for solid oxide fuel cell research, aimed partly at propping up the US coal industry.

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction. There several basic types of fuel cells, and some of the more interesting developments from a clean tech perspective involve fuel cells that deploy hydrogen. Most hydrogen is currently sourced from fossil natural gas, but the advent of low cost wind and solar energy is making it feasible to produce renewable hydrogen by “splitting” water with an electrical current, so you have the potential for a renewable energy fuel cell.

Solid oxide fuel cells are a different kind of creature. Instead of deploying hydrogen, they run directly on natural gas or gasified coal. In fact, the Office of Fossil Energy emphasized the coal angle for the new $32 million program. Here’s the pitch:

SOFC R&D will enable efficient, cost-effective electricity generation from abundant domestic coal and natural gas resources, with minimal use of water and near-zero atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide and pollutants.

That’s nice, except that the Office of Fossil Energy will have to do a lot more convincing before this $32 million program showers any significant benefits on the US coal industry.

Natural gas is not exactly a sustainable solution (to say the least) for global warming and it is front-loaded with local environmental impacts. However, it is cheap, abundant, and easily transportable when compared to coal.

The more likely scenario is that the new research will shove coal to the side and focus on natural gas.

For that matter, renewable biogas is beginning to emerge as a potential feedstock for solid oxide fuel cells, so it’s possible that over the long run, the research effort will eventually turn its back on fossil natural gas, too.

One recent development on that score is a proposal for a “solar assisted” biogas system that combines a solid oxide fuel cell with a concentrated solar power system. The biogas would come from a wastewater treatment plant, and heat recovered from the fuel cell would be used to optimize temperatures in the plant’s digesters (the CSP-fuel cell connection appears to be an emerging thing, as demonstrated by this other CSP-related fuel cell project).

The Office of Fossil Energy is also intrigued by the potential for solid oxide fuel cells to run on carbon monoxide, so there’s that.

What About Small Modular Coal Power Plants?

Yes, what about them? Earlier this month, the Department of Energy floated the idea of pouring money into the development of small modular coal power plants. The idea seems to be that the smaller plants would burn coal more efficiently, eliminating the need for expensive carbon capture technology.

Given the state of play in the “clean coal” field, it does make sense to downplay carbon capture technology as a solution.  However, that does not necessarily translate into sunny skies for US coal.

Our friends over at Utility Dive took, a deep dive into the idea of small modular plants without carbon capture and came up with this nugget:

Regardless of the DOE’s new focus, utilities in the U.S. say they are unlikely to add new coal generation of any size. Utility Dive’s recent survey of nearly 700 electric utility professionals, conducted in Dec. 2017, revealed that the vast majority of utilities expect coal to decrease significantly as a part of their fuel mix, and virtually no one expects to add coal-fired capacity.

Yep, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Throwing Bad Money After Worse: Nope

A third attempt to save the US coal industry also recently surfaced in the form of a state-level proposal to heap new tax breaks on the massive Navajo Generating Station in Arizona. The 1970s vintage coal power plant is the largest power plant in the US West and one of the top single emitters of carbon dioxide in the US, but not for long. It is slated to close next year.

Last week, Arizona lawmakers introduced legislation that would provide $12 million in new tax breaks for the power plant, apparently hoping that the financial incentive would attract a buyer that could keep the plant running. However, the bill quickly died.

Meanwhile, policymakers are already bracing for the impact of the plant closure. Some are hoping that a recent rebound in the state’s copper industry will help provide hundreds of new jobs to replace those lost at the power plant, at least for workers who are willing to relocate.

That brings us back around to the whale oil story. A while back, The Atlantic took a close look at Leviathan, a book that explores the factors leading to the quick death of the once-thriving whale oil industry in the US. The US whaling industry began to fall even when global demand was rising. Other countries stepped in to fill the whale oil demand until fossil fuels eventually took over, so the big question is what made the US give up on whale oil before its time.

The short version is that more opportunities were available on land in the 19th century US:

In the second half of Melville’s century, the industrial revolution lured young men without means to factories rather than the ocean. Capital beckoned the nation’s Ishmaels to the machines, away from the watery parts of the world.

Now take a look at what’s going on in Arizona. Copper prices are moving up partly because of increased demand from electric vehicle manufacturers and other clean tech sectors.

Meanwhile, a recent decision from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission promises to increase opportunities for energy storage, opening up the floodgates for more wind and solar energy in the grid.

That’s a stark contrast with another recent FERC decision, in which the commission dashed the coal industry’s hopes of engineering a new rate structure that would help keep it afloat.

Just last week Bloomberg spelled out the bad news under the ominous headline, “The Battery Will Kill Fossil Fuels — It’s Only A Matter of Time.

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Image: “Wreck of the Essex” via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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