With President Donald Trump touting “clean coal,” managers of a relatively new power plant in West Virginia seek to be the archetype of what the term means.
Strict interpretations of the term “clean coal” allow the notion to be dismissed as a myth or economically out of reach, while others use it broadly for existing technology “cleaner” than older plants. When Trump promises he will bring back “beautiful, clean coal,” those at Longview Power’s advanced supercritical power plant in Morgantown, W.Va., are hoping that includes more efficient plants that may not capture carbon dioxide but do emit less of the greenhouse gas and other pollutants than older plants.
“Clean coal is what we do at this power plant,” Longview President and CEO Jeffery Keffer said. “We need to be planning now for the replacement of [older plants] so we can continue to utilize coal in this country. Longview, really, is the model for doing that.”
The 700-MW supercritical coal plant emits about 20% less carbon dioxide to produce the same amount of energy as older coal plants. Building new coal power plants like Longview, Keffer said, would not necessarily increase coal’s generation share, but could instead replace older coal-fired power plants.
Hopes that Southern Co.’s Kemper project featuring carbon capture technology and coal-to-gas conversion would serve as a model for coal’s future dwindled as costs skyrocketed billions over projections. Just days after Southern announced it was suspending the coal gasification portion of its project, Longview hosted U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and most of West Virginia’s congressional delegation to highlight the coal plant.
When the administration talks “clean coal,” Perry indicated, it includes power plants like Longview.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry talks to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other officials on a tour of the Longview advanced supercritical power plant in Morgantown, W.Va.
As Perry’s agency readies a study of grid reliability, he said it is “common sense” that baseload power such as coal generation remains important. In a news release from Longview, Perry called the plant a model for “reliable clean coal technology.”
Keffer believes there is a case for incentivizing plants like Longview.
“Renewables get tax credits because they don’t produce CO2,” Keffer said. “Why not incentivize very efficient plants that also don’t produce CO2?”
Building new coal plant may still prove tough
If the nation does get an appetite for new coal power plants, it is notable that the Longview plant uniquely benefits from its location and that the plant went through a bankruptcy reorganization.
Longview gets most of its coal from a conveyor belt via a nearby mine owned by its own affiliate company, sharply reducing its fuel costs. Keffer acknowledged the competitive benefits of the minemouth model, but he also said it would not be essential. The plant, as shown by a map in Longview’s office, is also near highly efficient longwall coal mines owned by companies including Murray Energy Corp., CNX Coal Resources LP and Alliance Resource Partners LP.
Longview emerged from a bankruptcy restructuring in 2015 that was entered due to high levels of debt. Early on, the plant had suffered construction and operating issues with the power plant’s boiler, generator and air pollution controls. Keffer said a similar plant could now probably be built for much less than the roughly $2.0 billion it cost to build Longview.
He added that much of the company’s financial distress stemmed from the unanticipated success of the Marcellus shale development, a revolution that practically took place in Longview’s backyard and drastically reduced the cost of natural gas. Keffer was somewhat dismissive regarding worry about similarly disruptive energy developments derailing future coal projects.
“Could it happen? Absolutely,” Keffer said when asked about the advancement of technologies like battery storage for renewable energy sources. “Storage could all of a sudden become something that is easy, cheap, but we don’t see it.”
Such nascent technologies have elicited both hope and skepticism that renewables can behave more like baseload generation. One such storage project is going on just a few miles from Longview in Elkins, W.Va., and has been tied to a 98-MW wind farm since 2011. The owner of that project, AES Corp., announced a partnership with Siemens AG that rolls out a new global energy storage technology and storage company days after Perry’s visit to the coal plant.
These developments, and expectations that renewable energy prices will continue to fall buoy critics of coal. Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said building new coal plants now would be too late for meeting global targets to limit global warming.
“If we’re going to solve the problem of climate change we can’t be building things that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and under any measure, this coal plant is a very large and expensive source of carbon emissions,” Nilles said of Longview.
Because power plants are a decades-long investment, otherwise optimistic coal industry gatherings since Trump’s election have included some bad news for coal producers: utilities are still not rushing to build new coal plants. Karen Obenshain, director of fuels, technology and commercial policy at the Edison Electric Institute, recently said at a recent coal conference that members “are thinking they don’t see any prospect for coal at this time.”
Keffer pointed out, however, that Longview is held by investors expecting a good return on their investment, and he believes the plant can deliver. SNL Energy data shows top owners of Longview include Bain Capital Holdings LP, KKR & Co. LP and Centerbridge Partners LP.
“I am not a utility. I am a privately owned, investor-owned merchant power plant,” Keffer said. “That’s where most of the advances in technology are made in the United States these days.”