Office of Fossil Energy

Project Review Meeting

April 10, 2019

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Statements of Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg as prepared at the Project Review Meeting in Pittsburgh, PA on April 10, 2019. 

 

 

Thank you.

 

I’m honored to be here this morning, and I want to start off by thanking everyone in FE and at NETL who had a hand in organizing today’s meeting. 

 

I also want to thank our many partners for being here today.  We couldn’t do the work we do without your collaboration and contributions.

 

And I thank all of you who have taken time out of your schedules to join us this morning.

 

This is an exciting time for fossil energy research and development.  We face a number of challenges, but, I would argue, even more opportunities.  And that’s especially true when it comes to coal.

 

And if you look the research partnerships among FE, NETL, and our partners – and the breadth, scope, and accomplishments of our R&D – I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say that our coal portfolio is probably the most impressive in the world.

 

Today, we will get a close look at several of our R&D programs – Crosscutting, Rare Earth Elements, Gasification, and Transformative Power Generation.  All of these are critical, and all of them have the potential to help transform coal-fired power generation – and even the way we think about – and use – coal.

 

But to get there also requires a vision – a map of the landscape that shows the hills we need to take – and the resources that we’ll need – to accomplish our objectives.

 

So, to kick things off this morning, I’d like to talk about our vision and priorities, which are based on six pillars:

 

  • Improve and modernize our existing fleet of coal-fired powered plants;
  • Lay the groundwork for the coal plants of the future;
  • Advance the commercial deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage technologies for fossil energy systems;
  • Address water issues in coal-fired power plants and in oil and natural gas development; and
  • Develop and apply big data and machine learning capabilities and tools to increase oil and gas production.

These make up our R&D pillars.  The sixth pillar is to:

  • Ensure that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is discharge-ready and provides a return on investment to taxpayers.

Today I want to focus on our coal R&D pillars.  So, let’s take a look at the first two pillars – what we’re doing to make our current coal power fleet more efficient and what we’re doing – and will need to do – to make sure we’re able to bring online advanced coal plants as the current fleet retires.

 

Coal continues to play a critical role – providing about 30 percent of our power generation and ensuring the resiliency and stability of the grid.  But there are some canaries in the coal mine – the rapid retirements hitting our aging coal fleet and the potential vulnerabilities of an electric grid that is accommodating more and more intermittent renewable generation. 

 

In 2014, it was the Polar Vortex.  More recently, we had last year’s extreme cold on the East Coast, and this past January, we had the Polar Vortex in the Midwest.

 

Coal came to the rescue during the brutal winter events – providing 55 percent of the incremental daily generation across the affected region during last year’s East Coast event, and – looking at the preliminary numbers – over half of the power generation during January’s Polar Vortex. 

 

But with coal plant retirements, we can’t be sure that the grid will be able to respond to extreme weather events in the future.   

 

We got a glimpse of that future last year, when Texas saw record-breaking summer electricity demand coupled with the retirement of three large coal plants.  During a heatwave in July, real-time electricity prices peaked as high as $2,160/MWh.

 

So, over the past year alone, we’ve seen just how important coal is to grid reliability – and, we’ve seen the real-world impacts of coal plants leaving the grid. 

 

Now, one of the Department of Energy’s principal responsibilities is to ensure the security and reliability of the grid.  And one of the most pressing needs is to maintain the insurance policy that coal-fired plants provide.

 

So, the first thing we need to do is to make sure that we keep as much of our existing coal fleet as possible online until we get the new fleet in place. 

 

That means we need to update and modernize those plants.  So, our first R&D pillar is focused on increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of existing plants to extend their lives and ensure that they can operate on an evolving grid. 

 

To achieve this, we have a robust portfolio of R&D projects, many of which will be explored during this review.  This includes our R&D on sensors and controls, materials for harsh environments, and water management R&D.  R&D in those areas will improve the efficient operations of our existing plants, which will in turn make them more economic and competitive.

 

In addition, we recently issued a $38 million funding opportunity announcement focused exactly on this area: improving the efficiency, reliability, and performance of the existing fleet.  I look forward to the announcement of those projects and to seeing them presented at a future Peer Review.

 

At the same time, we need to begin developing the coal-fired power plants of the future — plants that are cleaner, very efficient, and have a smaller footprint.  And this is our second R&D pillar – the Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, and Transformative) initiative. 

 

These plants will:

 

  • Be capable of flexible operations to meet the needs of the grid;
  • Use innovative and cutting-edge components that improve efficiency;
  • Provide resilient power with near-zero emissions;
  • Be small compared to today’s conventional utility-scale coal; and
  • Transform how coal technologies are designed and manufactured. 

 

This initiative is a major part of our Advanced Energy Systems program, and our FY20 budget request for this program is $220 million – a 40 percent increase over what we got from Congress last year.  So, we’re committed to putting the necessary resources into this initiative.

 

Now, even as we push to stand up these flexible systems, we continue to pursue more aggressive goals that will change our current view of what’s possible.

 

For example, imagine a plant that could go from cold start to tens or even hundreds of megawatts in milliseconds.  And imagine that that unit is also rugged and small.  A technology that uses strong magnetic fields to extract electricity directly from hot combustion gases can do this – and have 60 percent efficiency, be scalable from tens of kilowatts to hundreds of megawatts, and be mounted on a flatbed truck.  And we’re working on that.

 

And we’re also pushing the envelope and thinking about new questions.  For example, today, both oxygen enrichment and carbon capture occur in a nitrogen-rich environment and at temperatures below 150 degrees Celsius.  What if nitrogen was not inert at those conditions and could be easily removed?  Novel nitrogen electrochemistry at room temperature and pressure is making us think twice about reactive separation techniques, and how these could be applied to future plants, as well as existing plants.

 

So, not only do we need to build on existing technical pathways, we need to be creative – we need to think about new possibilities and ask new questions.  You’ve done that before – and we have an impressive R&D track record to prove it.  And as we work to get the coal plants of the future online, I know you’ll do it again.

 

Now, I want to turn for a few minutes to our third pillar – advancing the commercial deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage, or CCUS.

 

We’ve been a world leader in CCUS research and development, and our CCUS R&D program has had some impressive successes.  We should all be proud of these accomplishments.

 

But there are still some technical hurdles to commercializing these technologies – the most significant, of course, being the costs associated with carbon capture.

 

That’s why, over the last couple of months, we’ve announced funding opportunities for FEED studies for carbon capture systems and for transformational capture technologies – a total of $54 million in funding.

 

When it comes to carbon storage, we’ve got a number of important projects.  Just one example – the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center, who’ll be giving a talk tomorrow – has a project to develop and validate pressure management and plume control strategies using the Brine Extraction Storage Test (BEST) concept.  This will greatly reduce the area of review to be monitored after injection in a CO2 storage project and will lower the overall costs.

 

And, last week, we announced up to $20 million for R&D to identify and address regional CO2 storage and transport challenges.  This new regional initiative will build on our past work and help advance CCUS. 

 

Now, let me talk about water for a couple of minutes.  As you know, our water and energy systems are closely interlinked.  And as both energy and water demands increase, we need to make sure we’re using our resources as efficiently as possible.

 

That’s the goal of our fourth R&D pillar, which supports the Department’s larger Water Security Grand Challenge initiative.  The Grand Challenge includes two fossil energy-related goals that we’re working on:

 

Transform the energy sector’s produced water from a waste to a resource, and
Achieve near-zero water impact for new thermoelectric power plants, and significantly lower freshwater use intensity within the existing fleet.

 

Now, when it comes to water issues related to coal-fired power plants, our R&D is targeting three areas:

 

  • Treatment and reuse of non-traditional waters;
  • Improvements to  power plant processes; and
  • Data, modeling, and analyses.

So, let’s look at the first area – water treatment and reuse.  Here, we’re focused on developing advanced technologies to reduce the amount of freshwater used for cooling.  This includes treating power plant cooling water and other plant effluents for reuse, and exploring the use of other sources of water where we can.  We’re also looking at ways to recover water from power plant flue gas.

 

We’re also focusing on treating the brines from CO2 storage sites for potential reuse as cooling water at power plants and for processes like power generation or hydrocarbon production.  The usable water would be particularly helpful in regions of the country where water is scarce.

 

The second research area is targeted at improving power plant processes to increase water efficiency.  Improving plant cycles and developing new efficient processes can not only reduce water intake, but also lower overall operating costs.  Last year, we awarded more than $2 million to three projects to enhance heat transfer in steam condensers of coal plants. 

 

Now, to better understand the complex relationship between energy and water, our third focus is on modeling and analyzing the multiple components that impact the water/energy system.

 

For instance, our modeling capability is currently being used to identify high-risk watersheds in which the likelihood of water shortages during drought may impact the reliability of the electric grid in the future.

 

So, we’re doing a lot of important work in the water/energy nexus space.

 

Finally, I want to talk about creating new value streams for coal.  We’re doing some fantastic work here on things like using coal to develop products like pitches, fibers, nanocarbon catalysts, and other materials.  We’re also making impressive strides in our rare earth R&D. 

 

For example, we’ve already found that recoverable coal reserves in some coal basins in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona could produce 6 million metric tons of REEs. And there may be right at 5 million metric tons of REEs available among coal deposits in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia.

 

We’ve also found rare earth concentrations greater than 300 parts per million in coal samples taken from several basins and the Pennsylvania anthracite region – concentrations that are critical to the commercial viability of extracting the elements from coal and coal by-products.  And we commissioned the rare earth element extraction facility at West Virginia University last summer.

 

We want to build on these successes, and I know that the work highlighted here will move us closer to developing domestic rare earth element resources from coal – and potentially opening enormous new industrial opportunities for America’s country.

 

So, that’s where we’re headed.  But we know there’s more that needs to be done.  So on that note, I’d like to announce that today we’re issuing five Funding Opportunity Announcements for coal R&D, totaling over $87 million in federal funding.  These FOAs cover a broad range of topics that touch on all of our coal R&D priorities, including:

 

  • Advanced Materials for High-Efficiency, Flexible and Reliable Coal-Fueled Power Plants;
  • Crosscutting Research for Coal-Fueled Power Plants
  • Process Scale-Up and Efficiency Improvements for Rare Earths and Critical Materials Recovery from Coal;
  • Advancing Steam Turbine Performance for Coal Boilers – which includes a topic in support of Coal FIRST; and
  • Transformational Sensing Capabilities for Characterizing the Subsurface.

 

These FOAs will help us expand the transformative R&D represented here today and support the important work that you continue to do. 

 

So, let me close by saying thank you for what you do every day. I applaud you for the strides you’ve made and I look forward to your continued successes and advances – and to a productive session today. 

 

I’m happy to take questions.