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Coal FIRST – Coal Plant of the Future

Looking beyond today’s utility-scale power plant concepts

Coal Fired Infographic ImageThis effort—the Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, Transformative) initiative—will develop the coal plant of the future needed 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 reduce emissions; provide resilient power to Americans; are small compared to today’s conventional utility-scale coal; and will 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:

  • High overall plant efficiency (40 percent or greater higher heating value (HHV) at full load, with minimal reductions in efficiency over the required generation range)
  • Small (unit sizes of approximately 50 to 350 megawatts (MW)), maximizing the benefits of high-quality, low-cost shop fabrication to minimize field construction costs and project cycle time
  • Near-zero emissions, with options to consider plant designs that inherently emit lower amounts of carbon dioxide (amounts that are approaching those of comparable natural gas technologies) or could be retrofitted with carbon capture without significant plant modifications
  • Capable of high ramp rates and minimum loads
  • Integration with thermal or other energy storage (e.g., chemical production) to ease intermittency inefficiencies and equipment damage
  • Minimized water consumption
  • Reduced design, construction, and commissioning schedules from conventional norms by leveraging techniques including but not limited to advanced process engineering and parametric design methods for modular design
  • Enhanced maintenance features including technology advances with monitoring and diagnostics to reduce maintenance and minimize forced outages
  • Integration with coal upgrading, or other plant value streams (e.g., co-production)
  • Capable of natural gas co-firing.

The Coal FIRST 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.