No new coal plants are under construction in the United States today, but the Department of Energy's top fossil fuel official thinks that may change in the near future.
Future construction of coal-fired power plants in the U.S. is "quite possible," Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steve Winberg told Utility Dive, and largely depends on the price of natural gas.
Winberg declined comment on whether the Trump administration will extend financial support to retiring coal and nuclear plants, saying that discussion "resides at the White House." The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Winberg's Monday comments reflect a broad campaign at the Department of Energy to revive domestic coal generation, which has been battered by competition from natural gas and renewable resources.
Late last year, DOE launched the Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small and Transformative) initiative, which seeks to design smaller, more flexible coal plants. This month, it offered $38 million in funding for technologies that make the existing coal fleet more flexible and efficient.
Those funding opportunities excluded carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is being demonstrated at a handful of power generation and industrial facilities across the U.S. but has not gained wide market adoption. DOE plans to target those technologies with a funding opportunity in the second quarter of 2019.
Winberg appeared at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Monday to tout those efforts as the think tank released its Global Status of CCS report for 2018.
"Here in the U.S., [CCS] is a key component of the president's energy strategy to expand the development of our fossil energy resources and improve and strengthen our fossil energy system," he told the audience at the think tank.
Already, he said, the Trump administration has allocated $400 million for carbon capture and utilization research, with the goal of bringing costs down 50%, to about $30 per ton of CO2 captured. Those efforts will dovetail with DOE's push for more modern coal plants, which Winberg said would be "better candidates" for CCS.
"While many would like to write coal out of the future, I don't think that is going to happen," he told the audience. "Developed and underdeveloped countries are going to utilize the energy resources they have under their feet."
Whether the U.S. becomes one of the countries to add new coal generators remains in doubt. There are no new coal plants under construction in the U.S. today, and the Energy Information Administration — the DOE's analysis arm — does not project any will be built before 2050.
Winberg, however, said that situation could change if natural gas — a main competitor for coal — rises in price more than anticipated.
"I don't think right now because nobody is building [coal] power plants right now," he told Utility Dive when asked about the prospects for new U.S. coal generators. "But I think it's quite possible in the future and primarily depends on what the price of natural gas is."
Winberg declined comment on discussions over whether the Trump administration will extend financial support to ailing coal and nuclear generators, reportedly put on hold over legal concerns last year. But he said the remaining fossil fuel fleet would offer opportunities for carbon capture regardless.
"There's plenty of power plants that could avail themselves of CCS technology," he said. "There's still 30% of the power generated in the U.S. by coal, so lots of opportunities."