Strange rumblings at PowerGen: Coal use could persist
New technologies and looser regulations could help coal, but many utilities are already making other plans
The biggest power generation conference in the world was down in Orlando last week, about a thousand miles south of my small cabin in upstate New York. Power Gen gets 20,000 attendees, so for a part-time hermit that's sensory overload. But Orlando was also 70 degrees warmer than upstate New York, and so it seemed like a good time to re-test those people skills and venture out of the cabin.
I arrived to wander through a massive exhibit hall packed with vendors from across the industry, and listen to sessions on everything from groundwater monitoring to distributed resource growth.
A month after one of the most unexpected election outcomes in United States' history, I'd anticipated sessions and speakers to touch on politics. Given the complete course reversal in federal policy that may be on the way, directly aimed at fossil fuel generation, this seemed like the place to talk about how President-elect Donald Trump's new administration might impact the industry.
But for the most part, speakers made prefaces like, "this isn't about politics," before gently skirting the issue (though perhaps with a bit more optimism than before). If you wanted to talk politics, you had to go to a bar. But if you wanted to talk about fossil fuels, the Orange County convention center was, for the week, the center of the world.
There are plenty of people making the argument that policy changes by Trump's administration won't impact current trends: Coal is dying and gas won't stop solar and wind growth; efficiency and demand management are too powerful of tools to be left behind.
The answer — after listening to speakers, cornering vendors and drinking beers with power folks from around the country — seems to be balance. It's not a sexy idea, but as turbine makers get more efficient and carbon capture technology more effective, there is an argument being made that coal-fired power is not, any time soon, going away.
"Coal is going to remain an integral part of global electricity production," said Willi Meixner, CEO of Siemens AG's power and gas division. "It almost has to."
Whether or not that holds true in the United States remains to be seen. Coal generation is expected to rise next year, as natural gas prices elevate somewhat, but plants have been closing down. At the same time, Southern Co. subsidiary Mississippi Power plans to begin commercial operations next month at its 582-MW Kemper coal gasification facility. It has been often delayed, having begun development in 2008. And with a final price tag around $7 billion, costs have doubled since the project began. But the company is betting that impressive carbon sequestration, along with creative revenue streams, can make the plant profitable.
According to MIT, the plant will capture 65% of all emissions and will put out well below the 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) required under EPA proposed guidelines.
"We've had challenges," said Anthony Wilson, President and CEO of Mississippi power. "Any time you do something that is first of its kind, at this scale, there will be adversity. We are building one of the most advanced energy facilities anywhere in the world. It is complex."
The facility required about 2,500 miles of cable and 175 miles of pipe to connect four main parts: a lignite coal mine, gasification system, a chemical plant and generation station. The mine, practically a stone's throw from the generation plant, offers 600 million tons of lignite and is owned by the utility. Over the 40-year lifespan of Kemper, Wilson said the plant would use only about 185 million tons.
The plant will have fewer sulfur dioxide, particulate and mercury emissions than traditional coal technology, says Mississippi Power, and will capture carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from the gas stream, which will then be marketed. And the plant will have zero liquid discharges, meaning local drinking supplies will remain safe.
Lignite is a "tremendously abundant resource in Mississippi," Wilson said. But perhaps more importantly, there are enormous deposits in other regions of the world. "Our company has signed four MOUs and one letter of intent with foreign utilities who understand the answer to coal's future could very well be in this technology."
Coal still growing
The United States retired about 18 GW of generation last year, and 80% of it was coal. A big chunk, about 30%, came in April when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule went into effect.
But according to research from Sierra Club, there is almost 350 GW of new coal capacity in construction worldwide, and almost 1,100 GW in various stages of planning. The environmental group says actual consumption of coal for power generation declined last year, but there are still the equivalent of about 1,500 coal plants planned.
Coal is cheap and abundant, and while environmentalists decry its use, there are signs that a new breed of plants could keep it in demand.
But "clean coal" isn't so cheap — environmental controls like fabric filters require construction of entire facilities. On the other hand, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says a fabric filter paired with a dry sorbent injection system can help remove about 90% of hydrochloric acid.
The Kemper plant goes at sequestration another way: it superheats the lignite in two gasifiers, pressurizing it to make synthetic gas. The CO2 is stripped out and sold for enhanced oil recovery, and Mississippi Power has contracts in place to market the other gasses as well.
"All three of those byproducts are marketed, and we have contracts for all of them," said Wilson. "And we're using some of that revenue stream to offset some of the customer's exposure on their bills."
Kemper may well be the proverbial canary: it's four integrated pieces are designed to streamline costs (there's little transportation fuel needed when you build the plant on top of the lignite), it owns the mine and sells the offshoot products.
But it still cost almost $7 billion to construct, and ratepayers are only picking up about $2.8 billion of that. Shareholders are rolling the dice on the balance.
"The facility is really in its final stages and what we're doing now is integrating the systems," said Wilson. Commercial operations begin in January, most likely."
Mike Tyson, change and technology
So while coal may stick around a lot longer than many renewables and clean tech advocates would like to see, the long-term trend is still towards decarbonzation. Duke Energy Florida is looking to invest $40 billion in its system as its 2,200 MW of peaking plants age and begin to retire, and must essentially choose between peaking plants and storage as a way to bring on more renewables.
As storage declines in prices, utility President Alex Glenn said the industry has reached a crossroads. Quoting his "favorite philosopher" Mike Tyson: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face."
"We had a plan. We had a plan a decade ago, to build clean coal and nuclear. We had a plan, and we got punched in the face," Glenn said.
He was talking about battery storage, but the same thing happened with shale gas, he added. Prices in Florida went from $14/MMBtu in 2007 and 2008, to less than $3/MMBtu now. "It completely transformed our investment strategy." The same thing is happening with renewables as well, as the price of solar and wind falls."
"We've got to change," he said. "We've got to change in how we interact with our customers ... and how we power the lives of those customers. What are going to be those investments? This is a transformational age."
Balance & delays
I spoke with a lot of power people last week, and once outside the convention center the conversations turned to politics. Most were Trump supporters, but none of our conversations sounded like the cacophony that filled the airwaves leading up to November. Some told me they needed lower tax rates to expand their businesses, others believed we were just pushing too fast to leave behind affordable and abundant energy sources that could be made cleaner.
If there was one policy idea that resonated, it was "a balanced approach." Most expressed some skepticism of the President-elect's cabinet picks, particularly Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to be Secretary of Energy. He did, after all, famously call for eliminating the agency.
But three days of energy talk was about all I could handle. It was about 10 degrees outside when I arrived back in New York.
The day I returned, wind roared through topping 50 mph at points, but somehow it still seemed quieter than the crowds back in Orlando. After more than a year of being off the grid, I appreciated the chance to talk energy and politics and power with so many people. But it's dead silent here today, snowing off and on, and I'm just fine with that.
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