First US Clean Coal Power Plant Is Operational

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The first large-scale U.S. “clean coal” power plant became operational Tuesday near Houston, Texas.

This clean coal plant, dubbed Petra Nova, captures the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the coal it burns and pumps it from near Houston to an oil field where it will be used for enhanced oil recovery. Petra Nova is capable of preventing 90 percent of the CO2 emissions usually generated by burning coal for power.

Petra Nova will generate 240 megawatts of power and will be economically viable as long as the price of oil remains about $50 a barrel. The plant belongs to the energy firms NRG Energy and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp and will prevent an estimated 1 million tons of CO2 emissions annually.

One other clean coal plant is currently under construction in Mississippi and is expected to be operational later in January. The Mississippi plant will convert coal to synthesis gas, directly removing it from the coal and sequestering it.

The U.S. Department of Energy was heavily involved in Petra Nova’s construction, paying roughly 19 percent of its $1 billion cost. Petra Nova was far cheaper than the Mississippi project, which cost $6.91 billion, only $270 million of which was paid for by the federal government.

Clean coal power plants have the potential to bring back the declining coal industry. Clean coal technology is of particular interest to President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly spoken about it.

America has 83,000 fewer coal jobs and 400 coal mines than it did when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, demonstrating the president is following through on his pledge to “bankrupt” the coal industry.

A 2015 study found the coal industry lost 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012 during Obama’s first term. During Obama’s second term, the industry employment in coal mining has fallen by another 33,300 jobs, 10,900 of which occurred in the last year alone, according to federal data. As a result, many ex-coal miners are unemployed and Appalachian “coal country” has faced very real economic devastation as a result.

Major companies such as Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, and Arch Coal were forced to declare bankruptcy in the last year. Other coal companies like Alliance Coal announced mass layoffs.

Currently, coal mining employs 69,460 Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Much of the blame for job loss is targeted at federal regulations aimed at preventing global warming, which caused coal power plants to go bankrupt. However, the energy market does seem to have moved away from coal towards natural gas, though the extent of this transition is unclear.

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