Here’s How Energy Storage Kills Coal, One Factory At A Time

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When recently impeached US President* Donald Trump tapped an auto industry lobbyist to lead the US Department of Energy last fall, eyes rolled back into heads. Well, it looks like the wrong eyes rolled. Despite the Commander-in-Chief’s oft-repeated promise to save coal jobs, coal power plants are still closing and the latest energy storage news from the Department of Energy practically guarantees the death of coal for industrial use in the US.

energy storage energy efficiency
The Energy Department puts another round of funding into energy storage and energy efficiency, pushing coal out of the manufacturing sector (photo via US DOE).

Energy Storage & Advanced Manufacturing

The energy storage news was wrapped into a newly announced $187 million round of funding that aims to “strengthen U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.” Apparently that’s a different way of spelling n-o-m-o-r-e-c-o-a-l.

Fifty-five R&D projects in 25 states won awards under the initiative. As a group, they steer the US manufacturing sector toward high-efficiency processes that reduce the use of energy overall.

Heating and drying account for 70% of energy used in manufacturing processes, so that’s one key area of focus with $28.7 million in funding.

Projects relating to energy recycling, and onsite electricity and heat generation, get a $33.5 million chunk of the funding.

Projects related to energy storage get the lion’s share, with $124 million dedicated to 36 university and private-sector research efforts.

The Energy Department anticipates that these projects will “catalyze domestic battery manufacturing, phase-change storage materials for heating and cooling applications, and the development of innovative materials for harsh service conditions.”

As energy storage is the key that unlocks the full potential of wind and solar, the effect will be to admit more renewables into industrial processes.

The renewable energy trend is already beginning to take shape in the steel industry as well as aluminum production and other industrial sectors.

Not for nothing, but none of this is good new for natural gas, either.

More Bad News For Coal

As they say, failure is an orphan. The current occupant of the Oval Office swept into office on the votes of coal miners and their communities, but the cheerleading ground to a halt as coal power plants continued to shutter their doors.

Coal did not make the cut for a shoutout in the President’s 2019 State of the Union Address, and this year was more of the same. Check out the part about US energy production and see if you can find coal in the picture:

“…the United States has become the number one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world, by far…America is now energy independent, and energy jobs, like so many other elements of our country, are at a record high…”

To be clear, jobs at coal power plants are evaporating, but by some measures coal mining jobs have been holding their own since over the past three years. Industry observers attribute the relatively stable employment picture to the ripple effect of a temporary uptick in global gas prices in 2016, which helped to sustain US coal exports.

However, today’s employment picture is looking like the calm before the storm. The export market is drying up, and that thing about dedicating $187 million to improve energy efficiency and energy storage in domestic manufacturing will bring the hammer down. Bloomberg summed up the gloom and doom for industrial coal last fall:

“… industrial coal use has failed to rebound as hoped, with an increase in demand for coking coal used in steelmaking more than offset by falling demand for other uses — and now the steel boomlet seems to be fading as well. Industrial uses account for only about 7% of U.S. coal consumption, down from nearly 50% in the 1950s.”

Hello Energy Storage, Goodbye Coal

As an ominous harbinger of things to come for coal mining communities, earlier this week Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette took one look at the February 11 report from the International Energy Agency and blasted out all the good news in a public statement:

“Today’s IEA report on global emissions is proof positive that innovation and technology are the solution to the world’s climate challenges. While emissions in other regions rose, global emissions flattened and were offset by reductions in the United States and other nations that have successfully deployed carbon capture, renewable energy, natural gas and nuclear power…

Carbon capture was a nice bone to throw, and some “other nations” are successfully deploying it, but carbon capture will not save coal mining jobs here in the US, at least not without the help of many taxpayer dollars.

The nation’s wind, solar, and hydro resources are vast and costs are falling through the floor, which makes the bottom line case for carbon capture in the power sector all the more difficult.

Currently you can count the number of large-scale carbon capture operations in the US on one finger, and prospects for adding another finger to the roster grow slimmer with every cut in costs for energy storage and renewable energy.

Coal stakeholders have their fingers crossed for a proposed carbon capture project for the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico, but earlier this week our friends over at the Institute for Energy economics and Financial Analysis threw the financial viability of the project into doubt.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to IEEFA for their insights on the overall carbon capture picture in the US, so stay tuned for more on that.

*Developing story.

Photo (cropped): via US DOE, Advanced Manufacturing Office.

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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.

Tina Casey has 3147 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey