With New Regulations Coming, What's the Future for Coal?

May 19, 2014

The Environmental Protection Agency wants coal-fired power plants to emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Credit Robb Kendrick / National Geographic

The Environmental Protection Agency is going to be releasing new rules on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants in the next few weeks. It’s an issue of great concern for many who rely on coal for work. But some also see it as an opportunity.

About 84 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions into Earth’s atmosphere are from carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and much of that carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels like coal. The EPA is taking action as, under the Clean Air Act, to enforce cuts in carbon emissions for cleaner air.

In September of last year, the agency put proposed new rules on how much carbon dioxide future power plants may release into the air. This includes capping carbon dioxide emissions to about 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, depending on the size of the turbines in those new plants.

New Rules on the Horizon

While at this point, everything is conjecture in terms of what the agency will seek in its newest regulations, pertaining to existing power plants  it is expected that states will have to figure out ways to reduce carbon emissions from their plants substantially in the next 15 years.

There are several ideas over how this can be done, but it certainly won’t be easy for many utilities to reduce emissions right away. One strategy is to do something known as fuel switching. This essentially means instead of burning coal at power plants, technical adjustments would be made to the plant so the facility would essentially burn natural gas instead, or co-fire coal with natural gas, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

"Some coal plants depending on the technology and the vintage can be switched to burn natural gas. A lot of utilities are looking at this," said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at WVU.

"That’s going on now with the wide availability of natural gas, utilities are doing that for economic reasons. That would also presumably will be a compliance option under these regulations. Or you could co-fire some natural gas with the coal, or biomass with the coal."

Another proposal the EPA is pursuing is for utilities to use carbon capture and storage technologies. This is a method that involves taking the carbon emissions and storing them underground, instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. It’s something American Electric Power tried at a Southern West Virginia plant a few years back: essentially storing the carbon right there at the site, and the whole project took eight years simply to get  up and running. But it didn’t work out in the end. Jeffrey La Fleur is a vice president of generating assets at AEP.

"The debate in Congress ended, and they decided not to take up the carbon issue. That debate stopped. We got the stagnation in public policy; the carbon issue got stuck in the mud. Nothing was moving," said La Fleur.

"When we go to our commissions to get recovery of any cost, we are a public utility, to recover any cost; they are not interested in paying for any technology that’s not required."

Despite the carbon capture project not working, La Fleur says there are no regrets about that project.

"I think we were successful in doing out with what we set to do. I think it was a great project, I don’t necessarily think we would have done anything differently. I think we would be a lot further down the road now if we had a little more foresight on the government’s part to develop the technology," said La Fleur.

"That technology is not commercially available. It’s not commercially viable. It’s got to be further developed."

Needing Resources

That means funding. La Fleur says public utilities that are interested in CCS need the help of the U.S. Department of Energy to get more money to do it. But even with funding, La Fleur says utilities, policy makers, and the general public needs to have patience...because change won’t be coming fast enough for some.

"The EPA is going to come out with a proposed rule in June. Are they going to give the states enough time to get with the companies, to come up with a plan. That I think has been the issue," said La Fleur.

"We need to have the proper funding to develop the technology going forward."

Whatever rules the EPA comes out with- some in the coal industry are expected to file lawsuits opposing them.