Embracing a Cleaner Coal Future

The role of coal in the future U.S. energy mix is a key issue in the Senate debate over climate legislation. Another senator has recently drawn attention to the importance of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to coal. On December 3, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) issued an opinion piece entitled “Coal Must Embrace the Future.”

West Virginia produces more coal than any state other than Wyoming and accounts for about 13.5 percent of total U.S. coal production. Coal-fueled power plants provide nearly 98 percent of West Virginia’s electricity. Coal mining accounts for about 6 percent of West Virginia’s state GDP and 3 percent of total state employment.

Senator Byrd’s opinion piece addresses issues related to mountaintop removal mining and climate change. Notably, on the question of climate change, Senator Byrd writes that:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table. The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards.

Disinterested analyses (e.g, from MIT and EPRI) project coal with CCS to be a significant component of a least-cost portfolio of low-carbon energy technologies.  Coal currently provides nearly half of all U.S. electricity. Senator Byrd’s opinion piece reinforces the distinct importance of preserving a significant role for coal in a future U.S. energy supply in order to secure broad political support (i.e., at least 60 votes in the Senate) for action on climate change.

Senator Byrd earlier stated that he did not support the climate and energy bill passed by the House in June (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) “in its present form.” Our recent brief describes the significant investments the House energy and climate bill includes for demonstration and deployment of CCS with coal-fueled power plants. The senator does, however, highlight in his opinion piece that he has been working for the past six months with a group of coal state senators on provisions that could be included in a Senate climate and energy bill that would facilitate a transition to a low-carbon energy future for the coal industry.

In short, Senator Byrd’s opinion piece is a candid assessment of the situation as he sees it: the science supporting man-made climate change is clear; U.S. climate and energy legislation will pass eventually; cooperative, constructive engagement by coal state Senators in crafting such legislation is the best strategy for protecting the interests of their constituents.

Fittingly, one of the most advanced CCS projects in the world recently began operation in Senator Byrd’s home state—American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Plant Carbon Dioxide Capture & Storage Project.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow

Dorgan Delves Deeper into CCS

Not surprisingly, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) is interested in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and its application to coal-fueled electricity generation. North Dakota gets almost 90 percent of its electricity from coal, and the state is the 10th largest producer of coal in the United States.

In mid-2008, Senator Dorgan convened a group of stakeholders with interest in CCS under the banner of a “Clean Coal and Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technology Development Pathways Initiative” (CCS Initiative) and asked them to provide input related to a number of key questions regarding CCS. Participants included representatives from the electric power industry, coal industry, manufacturing, labor, academics, and NGOs. The questions posed by the Senator focused on such issues as how much funding for CCS is required to ensure the technology is ready for broad deployment and how the United States can expand its cooperation with other key coal-producing and coal-consuming nations to accelerate international deployment of CCS.

On December 1, Senator Dorgan released a report prepared by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) that summarized input provided by the CCS Initiative participants.

Providing a Nuclear Boost

This week, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jim Webb (D-VA) released a bill intended, among other things, to dramatically expand the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet and, reportedly, to double the production of nuclear power in the United States by 2020.

In previous blog posts, we have highlighted what proposed climate and energy legislation in the House and Senate does for nuclear power. Many analyses, such as studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Energy Information Administration (EIA), agree that the bulk of the most cost-effective initial greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions are found in the electricity sector and that nuclear power can play a key role in reducing GHG emissions from electricity generation as part of a portfolio of low-carbon technologies.

Putting a price on carbon, as a GHG cap-and-trade program would do, is likely the best option for expanding nuclear power generation since it makes the cost of electricity from nuclear and other low-carbon technologies more economical compared to traditional fossil fuel technologies. For example, in its analysis of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACESA) passed by the House of Representatives in June of 2009, EIA projected that nuclear power might provide nearly twice as much electricity in 2030 as it does today.

A key challenge is cost. The construction of much of the existing nuclear fleet saw significant cost overruns and delays, which makes financing the first new plants after a hiatus of several decades difficult. Government loan guarantees can help the first-mover new nuclear power plants overcome the financing challenge. The demonstration of on-budget and on-time construction and operation by these first movers would facilitate commercial financing of subsequent plants.

Could the U.S. undertake a very large expansion of nuclear power? Nuclear power plants are massive undertakings, and a typical plant might cost on the order of $6 billion dollars and take 9-10 years to build from licensing through construction. Nonetheless, 17 applications for construction and operating licenses (COLs) for 26 new reactors are under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—all submitted since 2007. One can also look at the historical pace of nuclear power deployment in the United States for a sense of what might be reasonable once the nuclear industry ramps up. More than a third of the 100 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear generating capacity that provides a fifth of U.S. electricity came online in 1971-75, and more than 90 GW of U.S. nuclear power came online in the 1970s and 1980s.

One can see that putting a price on carbon, via cap and trade, will likely spur a significant expansion in U.S. nuclear power over the coming decades (as part of a portfolio of low-carbon technologies) facilitated by loan guarantees to support a few first-mover projects.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow