The future for coal research in the EU

I am just back from an interesting workshop* in Brussels which explored European coal research priorities. The different perspectives and priorities of the various regions represented was particularly evident. This was highlighted by an overview of the global coal market from Carlos Fernandez Alvarez (IEA), and presentations from the USA, Japan and China.

Coal use in the EU is declining largely due to political reasons as many member countries have announced plans to phase out coal. As Hervé Martin (European Commission) explained, the EU has adopted the Green Deal which means that the region now aims for carbon neutrality by 2050 and to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. In mid-January a Just Transition Fund was announced as part of the Green Deal, as it has been estimated that by 2030 around 160,000 direct jobs in the coal sector may be lost.  The Fund will contribute to research. Already, the EC is looking to amend the legal basis of the Research Fund for Coal and Steel. For now, it will use its assets to maintain the research funds available at around €40m/y for at least the next decade.

The situation is different in the USA where coal use for power is declining largely due to the availability of vast amounts of cheap natural gas. In 2019 coal was responsible for 29% of US power generation and is forecast to provide nearly 20% by 2040.

Meanwhile, the US DOE is running a substantial research programme, known as Coal FIRST: Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small and Transformative. They aim to develop 50-350 MW plants that will include CCUS, be nimble, flexible and modular, and operate at nearly 45% efficiency.

Thirteen projects have been selected, 7 of which are at the pre-FEED stage. Construction will start in 2024 and they should be commissioned in 2026, according to Lou Hrkman (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Clean Coal and Carbon Management, US DOE). Alternative uses for coal are also being developed, particularly in the construction sector as insulation materials and roof tiles.

However, it was emphasised  at the workshop that only roughly 5% of global coal use is in the EU, and another 5% in the USA, while the seven countries of China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines comprise half of the global population and use most of the coal. It follows that although the Powering Past Coal Alliance has 100 members, it represents a much smaller population and small proportion of global coal use.

Kevin Tu (Beijing Normal University) assessed the future of coal in China. In 2018, China was responsible for 46% of coal production, 51% of coal demand, 48% of coal-fired plant capacity and 20% of seaborne thermal coal trade. In November 2019 there was 1030 GW of coal-fired capacity in China, which is responsible for 11.1% of global carbon emissions.

So, it is Asia where much of the work on reducing the environmental impact of coal is happening.  A great example was presented by Kyohei Nakamura (JCoal) who gave an update on the CoolGen project in Japan. The project aims to produce a high efficiency low emissions (HELE) plant with zero emissions using IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) combined with IGFC (integrated gasification fuel cells) and carbon capture. Step 1 was the development of an oxygen-blown IGCC EAGLE gasifier, which has been achieved. Step 2 is the demonstration of IGCC with CO2 capture. This stage has just started and 400 t/d of CO2 will be captured using Selexol Max. The plant efficiency is 40% (HHV) while capturing 90% CO2 in a commercial scale IGCC. Step 3 of the plan is to run an IGFC with CO2 capture.  The design work for this is underway.

Reflecting their different priorities, it is plain to see why individual regions may focus on researching different aspects of coal use.  It is to be hoped that the EU will maintain its record of valuable coal research; for example work is needed on mine rehabilitation; methane emissions from open and abandoned coal mines; and alternative products from coal ranging from graphene and carbon fibre for high tech products through to humates for improving agricultural soil. Other R&D will continue in the major coal-using regions where China already has plants operating at over 49% efficiency and is pushing for more improvements, Japan has the example of CoolGen and others, and the USA is making progress with the CoalFIRST programme, as an example.  Combined, there is a range of valuable and interesting R&D underway to enable coal to be used with a reduced environmental impact for the coming decades.


*CoalTech2051 International strategic workshop on European coal research in light of EU policy objective to 2050 and future global trends in coal use, 28 January 2020. Organised by Euracoal, with input from the IEACCC, CERTH (Greece) and GIG (Poland)