Clean Coal: An American Alternative Energy Source

Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently dedicated the world’s largest clean-coal power plant, the WA Parish Generating Station – known as Petra Nova. Located not far from Houston, Petra Nova is the first of several American clean-coal operations scheduled to open during fiscal year 2017.  

Some of these clean-coal facilities, such as Petra Nova, are upgrades to existing coal-fired plants. Others, such as the Kemper County, Miss., plant, will be new operations. While those power plants have been under development for some time, President Donald Trump and Congress have already taken a number of decisive actions to roll back Obama-era executive orders and regulations.

Under President Barack Obama, two federal agencies were at loggerheads over clean coal. The Department of Energy helped fund demonstration projects, including Petra Nova, even as the Environmental Protection Agency worked hard to ban the mining and use of coal. Of the two, the EPA clearly had President Obama’s ear, reflected by anti-coal executive orders which gutted the American coal industry.

Obama’s actions reflected an ingrained bias, leaving many well-paid union workers unemployed and often unemployable. The Trump administration has no such bias. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) praised the president for overturning Obama’s “Clean Power Plan,” which was largely responsible for that massive loss of good-paying coal-industry jobs. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), cited another Trump rollback that will “protect the one-third of coal jobs placed at risk by the misguided Stream Protection Rule.”

In an early executive order, the president reopened the coal market in America, putting miners back to work while paving the way for restarting mothballed coal-fired facilities. He then signed a law rescinding the Obama administration’s “Stream Protection Rule,” an EPA regulation that subjected mining to impossible-to-achieve standards.

Trump’s actions have had immediate impacts on jobs and productivity. In the North Fork Valley of Colorado, as many as two coal trains per day are departing for coal-hungry markets, a seven-fold increase in productivity from when Colorado coal production hit record lows just last year — down 67 percent. While not all of this rebound can be directly attributed to President Trump, his actions have already paid dividends in virtually all coal states.

At the same time that the EPA was trying to shut down coal, the Department of Energy was demonstrating advanced clean coal power technology for both existing facilities and new power plants. The OFE advanced the use of coal in energy-efficient and environmentally sound directions. These include gasification, fuel cells, clean-burning hydrogen extraction, as well as the capture, storage and sequestration of carbon dioxide.

To generate quick results, the DOE has been “cross-cutting” research — blending theoretical and applied research in order to bring new solutions to market quickly.  One online innovation uses captured CO2 to extract new oil from tapped-out oil wells, then uses the empty wells as natural long-term geologic CO2 storage facilities. The DOE’s Advanced Energy Systems program is also dramatically improving the energy efficiency of coal-based power systems. By reducing the coal needed for electrical generation, the program helps enhance the air quality for hundreds of miles around coal-fired plants.  

There are several benefits that come with the new administration’s change of course. Domestic coal is available in abundance and at a low, stable price, offering a cost-effective replacement for off-shore oil and creating blue-collar and white-collar jobs in some of the most economically-depressed communities in the United States. In 2004, direct employment in the coal industry approached 100,000, with indirect employment at least doubling that. In Ohio alone, coal directly or indirectly created good-paying jobs for 33,000 people, and Ohio is not the nation’s largest coal producer.

Coal has also become a major export, helping to reduce balance-of-trade issues. This recently made headlines as China — pressuring North Korea toward a more rational foreign policy — suspended coal imports from North Korea, replacing them with increased imports of US coal. Coal-fueled industrialization has, in China and India alone, raised as many as one billion people out of crushing poverty. This has been the fastest rise in human well-being in history.

However, with India still needing to extend electricity to 300,000,000 residents, clean coal technologies are imperative. Fortunately, India has become a world leader in creating these solutions, some of which have yet to make it into the United States. The Indian approach embraces both supercritical/ultra-supercritical and carbon-capture coal-fired powerplants. As India’s Energy Minster Piyush Goyal confirmed, upgrading 40 gigawatts of aging thermal plant capacity with modern supercritical plants will generate “savings that will be far greater than possibly the 100,000 megawatts of solar power that we will be generating.”

Exploring innovative ways of using the captured carbon dioxide, a private-sector Indian coal-fired plant — the first to run profitably without government subsidies — is using the CO2 to create useful products. In Tuticorin, India, a power plant is using captured CO2 to create baking soda as a profitable and edible byproduct of energy production and has the capacity of capturing as much as 66,000 tons of CO2 gas each year.

Recognizing this offshore technology leadership, American congressional leaders, along with Perry, have begun face-to-face meetings with Indian energy officials, exploring ways that Indian clean-energy technology can be brought to the United States while America’s coal and natural gas are exported to India’s energy-starved industries.  

America isn’t the only country seeking clean coal solutions. By opening our doors to clean coal production and use, though, we are taking a leadership position in the international effort to reduce coal emissions while providing enhanced energy supplies to developing nations.

That’s why Secretary Perry is reaching out to India. As Senator Joe Manchin wrote earlier this month, “India will continue to build additional coal-fired capacity. That is a reality that we should consider an opportunity… it makes good sense that the United States leads in bringing clean coal technology to commercialization — and exports that technology to the rest of the world.”


Denny Weddle has actively supported alternative energy for 25 years. He owns D3 Marketing & Advertising, which promotes a wide variety of clients in Las Vegas, Nev., and throughout the U.S.

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