The existing fleet of coal-fired power plants is critical to the economic prosperity of the U.S. As the leading provider of U.S. electricity generation (at 39%), low cost coal keeps electricity prices below those of other free market nations and provides a competitive edge for U.S industry. In addition, the “Polar Vortex” weather events of January and February 2014 demonstrated the contribution of the existing coal fleet to the reliability of the U.S. electricity grid. After limited natural gas resources were diverted from electricity production to residential heating needs, coal-fired power plants made up the difference. Nationwide, over 90% of the increase in power generation in January and February 2014 (versus January and February 2013) came from the existing coal fleet.
Despite this, however, the coal industry faces some serious challenges, such as the regulation of CO2 emissions under the Environmental Protections Agency’s Clean Air Act Section 111(d). In response to a request from the Secretary of Energy, the National Coal Council (NCC) conducted a study during the winter of 2013-2014, which sought to identify solutions to enhance the efficiency of power generation from the existing coal fleet.
According to the report, in 2012, the average coal-fired power plant efficiency in the U.S. was 33%. In other words, 33% of the energy from the coal being burned in the plant is turned into usable electricity (more information about power plant efficiency). Greater efficiency results in less CO2 emitted during the generation process. State of the art plants around the world today can exceed efficiencies of over 40%. While a number of efficiency measures are currently commercially available, the benefits and cost are highly variable and site specific, and many measures have already been deployed. Modest efficiency improvements are achievable today using existing technologies to improve heat transfer, reduce heat losses and make better use of low quality heat.
What opportunities exist to achieve greater levels of efficiency improvements in existing coal-fired power plants? How should these improvements fit into the overall approach to America’s future for electricity generation?