Board Blog: The Importance of Technology Advancements in Coal-Fired Power Plant Operations

Board Blog: The Importance of Technology Advancements in Coal-Fired Power Plant Operations

Wyoming coal has long played a significant role in meeting America’s electric generation needs. Continuing to provide Wyoming coal to competitive markets is of the upmost importance. When we do a market analysis, we see there is an increasing need to innovative our coal product. Some of these innovations are ways to meet emissions-control goals with carbon capture technologies; others are advancements with carbon utilization to increase coal-to-products opportunities, and still other areas of opportunity are ways to meet requirements on Wyoming’s coal content make-up.

One area that doesn’t get as much attention is coal-fired power plants usage of other local resources. This plays a larger role in areas of the world that are looking for the reliability of coal electric generation but have to take other factors, like water, into consideration.

We are seeing local water supplies and infrastructure playing an important role in energy choice selection.  Water scarcity is a concern for several countries considered to be viable export markets for U.S. thermal coals, especially in developing economies where both energy and food consumption are growing rapidly.

Where there is water scarcity, there is competitive risk between coal power plants and low- or zero-water consuming electric power technologies, like wind and solar.

While there is no “one size fits all” solution, finding water alternatives for coal power plants will increase coals competitiveness in water constrained regions. Traditional coal-fired power plants use a large amount of water during the cooling phases. During the APEC Water-Energy Nexus Expert Workshop it was discussed that possible alternatives to traditional cooling processes could include using municipal wastewater, mine water, and seawater for the cooling process as opposed to fresh water.

The Department of Energy can assist coal power competitiveness by continuing to invest in technologies that lower coal power plant water consumption, increase water recycle/reuse, and enable non-water cooling technologies.  The need for coal cooling and water technological advancements is even more vital when considering the additional water consumption expected for deployment of current carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies.

Ms. Patricia Rawls of the National Energy Technology Laboratory described the current R&D supported by the Department of Energy with the grand challenges of:

  • Develop technologies for power plants that:
  • Reduce discharge of water effluent from the plant
  • Reduce fresh water consumption into the plant
  • Reduce treatment costs compared with commercially available options
  • Develop technologies that will enable plant to comply with current and potential future water regulations
  • Understand and predict shortfalls in thermoelectric power generation due to water availability and stresses

Coal research and development continues to be an area for which Wyoming can play a leading role; including finding solutions to reduce water consumption at power plants and using the water delivered with our Powder River Basin coals.

Wyoming has three of the coldest climate zones within the continental U.S. This provides Wyoming the opportunity to research solutions to lessen water consumption for Wyoming-based coal power plants by using advanced air-cooling technology.

Electric power choice analyses are increasingly comparing low- and zero-water electric generation technologies such as photovoltaic solar and wind to mitigate local water scarcity risks. This highlights the need to lessen water consumption for coal-fired power to be competitive in water-scarcity markets, and most importantly to not be excluded from such markets do to a lack of technological capabilities.




This blog post has been adapted from a white paper compiled by the Western Research Insititute and included in Appendix 3B of the National Coal Council report entitled Power Rest: Optimizing the Existing Coal Fleet to Ensure a Reliable and Resilient Grid.


About Don Collins

Don Collins, is the Chief Executive Officer of Western Research Institute located in Laramie, Wyoming. He and his team focus on transitioning scientific and applied research into technologies for clean zero-emission energy, environmental emissions capture, in-situ environmental remediation, water conservation and reuse, and lower cost methods for building highways. He has 29-years of experience in engineering and management of research, design, and deployment of new technologies.

Prior to arriving at WRI, Don managed groups of scientific and engineering project managers in pursuit of the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Coal Technology RDD&D goals. For about 6.5-years he managed DOE RDD&D programs focused on fuel cells and energy storage technology for distributed and central power applications, including smart grid technologies. In this role, he was responsible for hydrogen turbines and high efficient CO2 compressor development under the DOE’s FutureGen and Carbon Sequestration programs.

Don’s first 17-years were dedicated to submarine technologies and integration of complex systems for SEAWOLF and VIRGINIA Class submarines, for the U.S. Navy, including CO2 scrubber technology.


Image Sources
Total Renewable Water Resources per capita in 2013: APEC Water-Energy Nexus Expert Workshop Report, APEC Energy Working Group, December 2017, APEC Project: EWG 07 2015A
Climate Zone Map: Department of Energy