As coal continues its irreversible decline, the Trump administration keeps trying new ways to prop up the industry.
In the administration’s latest effort to help the coal industry, the Department of Energy (DOE) is providing up to $38 million in funding for research into improving the performance and reliability of the nation’s existing coal-fired power plants.
The DOE’s decision to boost research funding for existing coal-fired power plants comes as coal’s share of the nation’s generation portfolio remains on the decline. In 2007, 28 states relied on coal as their primary electricity source. In 2018, coal is the top source for power generation in only 18 states.
Efforts by the Trump administration to reverse the diminishing fortunes of the coal industry are also occurring at a time when climate scientists are warning governments around the world to develop policies that will drastically reduce emissions from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.
“This funding is in line with the Trump administration trying to do everything it can think of to throw a bone to the coal industry,” Jeremy Richardson, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. “It’s sort of like, let’s throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Fortunately, nothing has stuck yet.”
From proposed coal industry bailouts to reversing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules on coal pollution, the Trump administration has spent the past two years pushing a variety of proposals to benefit coal producers and plant owners at the expense of human health and the climate.
And yet, more coal plants have shut down during President Donald Trump’s first two years than during Barack Obama’s entire first term as president.
Energy industry experts view the DOE’s latest funding proposal as yet another attempt by the administration to fulfill Trump’s promise to help his political donors in the coal industry.
In response to DOE’s funding announcement, David Hawkins, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in an email to ThinkProgress, “This is worse than a waste of taxpayers’ money. This is spending money to actively do harm to Americans.”
Existing coal plants are the “worst polluters in the country,” Hawkins said, adding they “should be replaced by clean energy resources, not subsidized to keep polluting.”
In response to the Trump administration’s previous efforts to bail out the coal industry, electric grid operators and major electric utility companies have already concluded that the U.S. grid is resilient and that the growing list of coal plant retirements will not affect reliability.
Yet, in its announcement this week, DOE said it wants to fund research and development of technologies that could improve the overall performance, reliability, and flexibility of the nation’s existing coal-fired power plant fleet.
“This is an explicit acknowledgement that the current coal fleet can’t meet the needs of today’s electricity grid,” Richardson said. “Those are the reasons that coal is going offline. Coal is not economic and there are other technologies that can provide that flexibility.”
Among those technologies are fast-responding distributed energy resources such as energy storage and demand response programs which can keep the grid in balance and compensate for intermittent renewables and uncertain demand forecasts.
Demand response programs give consumers an opportunity to play a role in the operation of the electric grid by reducing or shifting their electricity usage during peak periods in response to time-based rates or other forms of financial incentives.
On a predictable, hourly basis, fast-ramping distributed energy resources can pick up the slack for solar and wind power output that changes rapidly. Demand response programs and batteries can shift or store energy to meet daily needs when renewable energy production doesn’t match variations in electricity demand during the day.
The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), located in Morgantown, West Virginia, will oversee the research into improving the overall performance of coal plants.
The new funding will also support existing DOE programs such as the Transformative Power Generation Program, the goal of which is to keep coal competitive with other generating fuels.
“Utilizing all of our energy resources to ensure the reliability and resiliency of our nation’s electricity is a top priority for the Department of Energy,” DOE Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes said Wednesday in a news release. “Modernizing and advancing the existing coal fleet is imperative to this mission.”
In 2018, the Trump administration also created a program dubbed the Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, Transformative) initiative that is focusing on research into the creation of new, small coal units, sized between 50 megawatts and 350 megawatts. The generating capacity of traditional coal plants is typically greater than 500 megawatts.
The Coal FIRST initiative will look beyond utility-scale power plant concepts, such as baseload power plants that can run continuously, in ways that fit with the electrical grid, DOE said.
According to Richardson, though, it’s unlikely government and industry researchers will succeed in developing a new coal technology that is cheaper than the alternatives — renewables and natural gas — that the electric power industry has today.
Furthermore, developers of these proposed smaller coal plants would want them to be sited in urban centers — areas where toxic emissions have disproportionately harmed the most vulnerable populations — in order to provide electricity quickly during periods of high demand.
Placing smaller coal plants in these same areas would “just exacerbate that problem,” Richardson said.
The timing of DOE’s offer of money to conduct research into coal plants also is raising concerns. The DOE is fully funded through the end of the current fiscal year. But its funding offer is occurring at a time when the vast majority of EPA enforcement officials are on furlough due to the partial government shutdown.
The coal plant research money is being offered “when EPA can’t even protect people” from the impacts of the burning of coal, Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress.
The funding announcement also came one day before the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the DOE, predicted coal generation would drop to 17 percent of total electricity generation by 2050.
In 2017, coal represented 29.9 percent of U.S. electricity generation by source, trailing natural gas, which stood at 32.1 percent. Twenty years earlier, the average share of electricity generation from coal was 52.8 percent. By 2009, coal’s share stood at 45 percent.
“These plants are going down one after another. They’re way too costly to operate, let alone the fact they are killing people and they’re killing the climate,” Perera said. “This is purely the Trump administration trying to appease political donors from the coal extraction industry. They’re trying to bluff the market into thinking there is still a market for their disgustingly dirty production of energy.”