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New Year Critical For Coal Sector Innovation



January 1, 2019 - The new year could prove pivotal for efforts to find new markets for U.S. coal mines and to promote technological advances in electricity generation.

Efforts to expand thermal coal's use beyond typical power generation gained traction in 2018, with mixed success. While Congress failed to pass most legislation aimed at supporting carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and other advanced coal generation incentives, the U.S. Energy Department (DOE) plowed ahead with its own initiatives to fund smaller projects. And for the time since early this decade, a power plant developer indicated interest in building a plant to convert coal into other fuel.

Credit rating agencies expect the industry to continue its secular decline. But President Donald Trump has made helping the coal industry a cornerstone of his energy strategy. So far, his efforts – centered primarily on rolling back regulations promulgated under predecessor Barack Obama - have mostly slowed the pace of power plant retirements.

Emerging markets and advancing technology could offset some of the pressure from the additional 27GW of coal-fired power plant capacity that is expected to go off line in the U.S. over the next five years. But it will not be a complete cure.

The IEA expects coal consumption in North America and Europe to continue to shrink, although demand in Asia could increase modestly. Even in China "the only sector in which we see significant growth is coal conversion, i.e. coal-to-liquids, coal-to-gas and coal-to-chemicals," IEA said in its Coal 2018: Analysis and Forecasts to 2023. Coal-to-liquids plant capacity in China is projected to rise to 23mn t/y in 2023 from 7.1mn t/y in 2017, the report said.

In the US, Riverview Energy has proposed building a coal-to-diesel plant in Indiana. A local commission in November approved its plan to convert 1.6mn short tons/yr (1.45mn metric tonnes/yr) into 4.8mn bl/yr of diesel and 2.5mn bl/yr of naptha.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers this year passed a measure expanding the use of the 45Q tax credit for CCUS projects used in enhanced oil recovery.

Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) plans in the new Congress to reintroduce the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (Use It) bill, which would authorize $50mn for research and development into CCUS next year. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the bill in May, but the measure did not make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Other measures, including legislation introduced by senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) in November to expand eligibility for the Energy Department's loan guarantee program to include high-efficiency, low-emission coal-fired units, could also be reintroduced. Young could not be reached for comment on his plans for the bill.

DOE in December issued a request for proposals under its new Coal FIRST (flexible, innovative, resilient, small and transformative) program. The goal of the program is to fund modernized designs for integrating existing technology into "first of a kind" coal-fired generating systems.

DOE also is funding research into extracting rare earth elements from coal as part of the National Energy Technology Laboratory research into alternative uses for coal. The agency is expected to fund both projects in January.

In Virginia, the GO Virginia Region One Council, a bipartisan economic-development program, approved recommendations in October for funding market research into alternative uses for coal, including examining the commercial viability of converting coal to graphene.

And U.S. coal producer Ramaco Resources received approval to begin construction on a research park in Wyoming dedicated to developing cost-effective technologies to create consumer products from coal.

"There is an alternative use for thermal coal that makes more sense than selling it to a utility to burn," Ramaco chief executive Randall Atkins said in an interview in November. "The first thing we are building is the research campus, some of which will be devoted to 3D printing and graphene production." The company expected to complete construction on the building in the first half of 2019.

Industry and the government had made efforts at the start of this decade to develop advanced coal-fired power plants and other alternatives for thermal coal use. But those initiatives largely petered out amid project delays, escalating costs and difficulties attaining private investment and community support.

The revived interest in pursuing projects could face similar hurdles. The upcoming year could set the framework for any advances in U.S. coal use.