If coal has a future, the Energy Department is banking on small modular coal-fired power plants that it says would generate more energy out of the same amount of coal, while polluting less.

With 40 percent of the existing coal fleet retired or facing closure, the agency is trying to use new technologies—ranging from advanced materials that can operate at higher temperatures to improved sensors and controls—to revive the coal industry.

“What we’re proposing to do is leapfrog over that 40- to 50-year old coal technology,” Steve Winberg, head of the agency’s fossil energy office, told Bloomberg Environment. “This small modular size range is also what the developing world needs so that would mean jobs in the United States.”

Winberg acknowledged that there likely isn’t U.S. commercial market right now for these small coal plants—which would range between 50 and 350 megawatts—at least while the price of natural gas is so low. But such plants could be exported to developing countries, he said.

Developing Countries

Although burning coal is among the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, Winberg said exporting these miniature coal-burning modular plants to developing countries could actually help combat climate change, especially if they were equipped with carbon capture technology.

“For those that want to see significant reductions in greenhouse gas, that has to be done on a global basis,” he said. “Whatever the United States does isn’t going to move the needle a whole a lot. What happens moving forward in developing countries will move the needle because they’re growing, they’re going to use more energy.”

While the technology is still several years away, the agency should provide 80 percent of the funding on two or three small modular coal plant designs, with the remaining 20 percent coming from private sources, Winberg said. He said it’s too early to estimate costs.

Seeking Technology Proposals

The Fossil Energy Office issued a request for information in May soliciting interest in building these small coal plants.

A selling point, he said, is the projects could be “near-zero-emitting” if they included carbon capture technology. But carbon capture is still very expensive and difficult to commercialize.

The agency received 30 responses from equipment suppliers, technology developers, universities, energy associations, and utilities, and is completing its review of the comments.

The Energy Department’s next step is to solicit early stage technology design proposals for the modular coal plants, with the expectation that several will be selected to move forward, Winberg said.