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21st Century Power Plants

Looking beyond today’s utility-scale power plant concepts

This effort—the 21st Century Power Plants initiative—will support the development of the coal plant of the future to provide secure, stable, and reliable power. This research and development (R&D) will underpin coal-fired power plants that are capable of flexible operations to meet the needs of the grid; use innovative and cutting-edge components that improve efficiency and achieve zero or near-zero emissions; provide resilient power to Americans; are small (50-350MWe) compared to today’s conventional utility-scale coal power plants; and transform how coal technologies are designed and manufactured.

Changes to the U.S. electricity industry are forcing a paradigm shift in how the nation’s generating assets are operated. Coal-fired power plants optimized as baseload resources are being increasingly relied on as load-following resources to support electricity generated from intermittent renewable capacity, as well as to provide critical ancillary services to the grid. These fundamental changes to the operating and economic environment in which coal plants function are expected to persist into the next decade and beyond. In addition, wide-scale retirements of the nation’s existing fleet of coal-fired power plants— without replacement—may lead to a significant undermining of the resiliency of America’s electricity supply. Nevertheless, the need for considerable dispatchable generation, critical ancillary services, and grid reliability, combined with potentially higher future natural gas prices and energy security concerns, such as the importance of onsite fuel availability during extreme weather events, create the opportunity for advanced coal-fired generation for both domestic and international deployment.

Deployment of new coal plants will require a different way of thinking. Specifically, the Department of Energy envisions that the coal-fired fleet of the future may be based on power systems with the following characteristics:

  • Requisite attributes of 21st Century Power Plants include:
    • Modular units up to 350MWnet that maximize the benefits of high-quality, low-cost shop fabrication to minimize field construction costs and project cycle time, and parametric design methods that minimize the time and cost required to modify the scale or design for wide-scale replication.
    • The capability for zero, or near-zero levels of regulated emissions.
    • A strategy for the final disposition of captured Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which could include geological storage or utilization (e.g., enhanced oil recovery) or some combination thereof.
    • The capability for high ramp rates and minimum loads commensurate with estimates of renewable market penetration by 2050.
    • Feedstock flexibility that improves the emissions, reliability, operability and/or economics of the plant, and/or mitigates an environmental liability. Feedstock flexibility could include, but is not limited to: 1) ability to accept variations in composition of the design coal feedstock, 2) ability to utilize different types/ranks of coals or coal wastes, 3) ability to co-feed coal with a non-coal feedstock such as natural gas, biomass or wastes from petroleum-based synthetic materials (e.g., plastics). 
    • Capital and operating costs that could enable commercial success in a future business case.
    • The applicability to markets that will enable wide-scale replication without those markets being saturated by the output of just a few plants.
  • Desirable, but non-mandatory, attributes of 21st Century Power Plants include:
    • High overall plant efficiency, with minimal reductions in efficiency over the required generation range.
    • The capability for net-negative carbon dioxide emissions.
    • The capability for integration with thermal or other energy storage to minimize equipment damage and inefficiencies due to variable load operation.
    • Minimal water consumption.
    • Reduced design, construction, and commissioning schedules compared to conventional norms by leveraging techniques such as advanced process engineering.
    • Improved maintenance features including enhanced monitoring and diagnostics to reduce maintenance and minimize forced outages.
    • The capability for integration with coal upgrading or other plant value streams (e.g., co-production).

    The 21st Century Power Plants initiative will advance coal power generation beyond today’s state-of-the-art to make coal-fired power plants a critical contributor to the grid of the future and offer both “firm and flexible” operations—providing stable power with operational flexibility and high efficiency such that it can quickly meet the needs of the evolving grid for resiliency and reliability. The initiative will integrate critical R&D on power plant components with currently available technologies into a first-of-a-kind system. Through innovative technologies and advanced approaches to design and manufacturing, the initiative will look beyond today’s utility-scale power plant concepts (e.g. base-load units) in ways that integrate with the electrical grid in the United States and internationally.