New internet networking and improved computer hardware called “the internet of things” may have created an enormous market for coal power, according to a study published Thursday by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The study states that relatively simple networking upgrades could increase the efficiency of coal power plants from 33 to 49 percent and cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
These new networking techniques could allow coal plants to be “tuned” to operate much more efficiently and adjust more rapidly to changing prices, allowing them to go from a totally dormant state to full operation in less than two hours, a process which used to take more than three hours. This relatively simple change creates a huge new market which could allow coal plants to quickly respond to the rapidly fluctuating demand for electricity created by increasing amounts of intermittent green energy on the power grid.
Utilities have attempted to harness this “Internet of things” for a decade to improve the efficiency, flexibility, and emissions profile of aging coal plants. The MIT study found that the process could even make it much easier to integrate green energy into the power grid by making existing coal plants more flexible. The networking changes could be a huge deal for reducing CO2 emissions in China and India, both of which plan to build new coal plants.
“In places like China and India, they’ve already locked in plans to build brand new coal power plants, and those plants are going to be on the grid for 30 to 40 years,” Scott Bolick, the head of software strategy and product management at General Electric, told the MIT Technology Review Thursday. “We look at it as our responsibility to make sure those plants are as sustainable as they can possibly be.”
The decline of the American coal industry has created very real economic hardship for the”coal country” of Appalachia, which has been economically devastated and offers very few job options for the now unemployed workers.
A study published last April found the coal industry lost 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012. Coal mines lost 7,500 jobs last year alone, according to federal data. Much of the blame for job losses is targeted at federal regulations aimed at preventing global warming, which caused coal power plants to go bankrupt, resulting in a sharp decline in the price of coal.
Even President Barack Obama has recognized this and stated that opposition to his policies by coal miners and people in Appalachia is “perfectly legitimate,” during a December interview with National Public Radio.
The situation for coal miners would likely get worse if Obama’s Clean Power Plan is fully implemented. The EIA predicts the plan would more than double the number of coal plants shutting down over the next five years. The shutdowns have a cascading effect, causing coal production to collapse by more than 30 percent over the next decade.
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