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What's next for coal?

Hank Hayes • Jun 3, 2018 at 11:30 AM

KINGSPORT – You’ve heard of Silicon Valley.

How about coal having its own Carbon Valley?

That was one of the forward-looking ideas promoted at the recent Virginia Coal & Energy Alliance/Southern States Energy Board 39th annual conference and expo held at the MeadowView Marriott.

Charles Atkins, RAMACO Carbon Director of Research and Development, had a “Coal to Products” presentation, noting that while past eras had enjoyed monikers like the “bronze age” and the “iron age,” it is now time for a “carbon age.”

Taking the carbon from coal – which he said is the cheapest source of carbon – will see coal utilized in a different way from current use. Carbon fiber, he said, can be used to make roof shingles and much more.

“It’s a fast growing field with lots of opportunities,” Atkins noted. “Carbon is the advanced material of the future.”

A new research center, he said, is being developed to advance the technology and to look at how to ramp things up to result in commercial utilization of coal carbon for a variety of products. Carbon fiber, Atkins stressed, is stronger, lighter and cheaper than some other materials and he pointed out that most coal is 70 percent pure carbon. Uses for coal carbon for building products, such as bridge supports, are also being seen, according to Atkins.

Atkins suggested the “Carbon Valley” branding for coal because of the proximity to mining locations.

“It starts with a lump of coal and the power of carbon,” Atkins concluded.

Opportunities for metallurgical coal, a new framework for coal markets and efficient coal power technologies were also prime topics at the conference with the theme of “A New Vision for Coal.”

Department of Interior Policy Advisor Tucker Davis talked about the new optimism within the industry since President Donald Trump had taken office. He noted that the Obama administration “didn’t understand when you shut down coal, you shut down business.”

Davis noted that under Trump, work has been ongoing to dismantle regulations which crippled the coal industry.

“We are working to restore the promise of the American dream to coal miners and their families,” said Davis, who noted the uptick in coal exports and what happens when markets are allowed to work for themselves.

“The war on coal is over,” Davis declared. “We are committed to getting government out of your way. America is open for business. This is what change looks like.”

Southern States Energy Board Executive Director and Secretary Ken Nemeth stressed what the coal industry needs now is regulatory certainty.

“Without it, the industry cannot build new technologies. Long-term strategies require long-term commitments and we need to drive that home to Congress,” Nemeth pointed out.

Steve Winberg, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy-Fossil Energy, said that part of the future for coal-fired power units resides in the building of smaller 50-300 megawatt units, possibly as large as 350 megawatt units, and a fundamental change in how they operate.

“We need to get on the task of designing the next generation of coal technologies,” Winberg said. He also called on the need for continued carbon capture, storage and utilization research.

Dominion Energy Vice President William Murray spoke of the “electrification” of the transportation industry and what it will mean to utilities as energy demand increases.

“Our future is in our hands,” Murray said. “We just need to get out of our own way.”

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