Special Report: Coal Development Executive Roundtable

Issue 7 and Volume 115.

Fluor completed the Oak Grove Units 1&2 project in Robertson County, Texas for Luminant. The lignite-fired plant provides 1,640 MW of power and features lower emission rates than any existing lignite plant. Photo courtesy of Fluor.

By Brian Wheeler, Associate Editor

The coal-fired power generation industry is in the midst of uncertainty. In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued final Clean Air Act standards for boilers and other equipment. And in March, EPA issued first-of-their-kind standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic emissions from power plants. Following these rules, many coal-fired plants are beginning retrofit projects to comply with mandates or as part of settlement agreements. One utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has made plans to close 18 coal-fired units with a capacity of 2,700 MW of electricity by 2017.

And the EPA is developing a Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) regulation for coal-fired units that is expected to limit emissions of Hazardous Air Pollutants from new and existing coal-fired units. The EPA is expected to make its final ruling by November 2011.

With rules in place and others looming, the coal-fired industry faces timelines to retrofit or shut down existing units. Power Engineering magazine Associate Editor Brian Wheeler moderated this year’s Coal Development Executive Roundtable, which discussed the economic recovery and its effect on coal-fired generation, the feasibility of retrofitting existing plants, the development of carbon capture and storage technology and the overarching issue of coal-fired generation’s role in North America’s power generation future.

Roundtable participants included Robert L. Reymond, PE, associate vice president, Energy Group, Burns & McDonnell; Tim Curran, president, Alstom Power Inc., U.S.; Robert Fisher, senior vice president, Fossil Generation, Tennessee Valley Authority; and Don Broeils, vice president, Power Group, Fluor.

How’s business now that the economy is in recovery? What’s different now compared with 2008 before the economic crisis began?

Tim Curran: Our service business has recovered, I would say, quite nicely. We do see that our customers have suffered some electric load drop-off and they had to stall some spending, but we have seen them come back on the service market. We see that there are nuclear and hydro retrofits that are proceeding. We have had several retrofit orders in the area of zero-carbon generation. And we also see environmental control systems activity anticipated to pick up with the regulations coming from Utility MACT (maximum achievable control technology). So we see on the horizon a larger business potential coming, but our base business in service has recovered.

Tim Curran, president, Alstom Power Inc., U.S.

Don Broeils: I would echo much of what Tim just said. For us, on the coal side we think that the need for new generation will lag the economic recovery by some increment of time. It goes back to what Tim said in that we have seen the demand for electricity in some regions flatten during the economic downturn or in some cases actually regress some. So that will take some time to recover in terms of new generation. We also see that the U.S. regulatory climate is not really that conducive to coal with all of the environmental regulations coming forward, such as the Utility MACT, the Clean Air Transport Rule and several other regulations.

We also think that the U.S. political climate is still not that conducive to new coal development. The current administration has not really embraced clean coal technologies and air permits continue to be hard to obtain. Project financing has also had some impact as well. A lot of investors now seem to be more interested in gas and renewable projects; we do see gas projects on the increase. Similar to Tim, we also see on the horizon a good bit of environmental work coming forward as a result of the regulations. But in general, new coal is going to be depressed here for a while.

In terms of the difference to 2008, I don’t think domestically there is a tremendous difference because the regulatory situation was very uncertain at that time and the political climate was similar. The difference now is that we do see a better economic situation on the horizon.

Don Broeils, vice president, Power Group, Fluor
Robert Reymond: I’ll hedge a little bit on that answer because while I believe the economy has gotten better, I still don’t see that it’s clearly in a recovery. I said last year that I thought there were as many negative signs as positive signs and I still think that’s the case. But I also want to say that I don’t necessarily believe the overall economy is going to be a proxy for business in the U.S., at least in the engineering construction business. What we are going to see over the next three to four years is a lot of work in the engineering construction business in the power industry driven by regulation, specifically in terms of environmental projects. Environmental retrofits to existing coal are going to be an enormous business and are going to be very, very active over the next four years. We are already starting to see it. The projects are already starting to happen. From that perspective I think it looks good.

Robert L. Reymond, PE, associate vice president, Energy Group, Burns & McDonnell

Robert Fisher: From a load standpoint, we have seen in the Tennessee Valley that our load overall prior to 2008 is similar to where it is today. In fact we had our winter daily energy demand record set this past January. We see low load growth going forward, although, due to some of the attractiveness of the Tennessee Valley, we are starting to see some major businesses moving into the Valley.

Robert Fisher, senior vice president, Fossil Generation, Tennessee Valley Authorit

EPA has said that greenhouse gas reductions can be achieved largely through energy efficiency improvements at existing power plants. What are some primary efficiency improvements that can offer the biggest “bang for the buck?”

Fisher: Clearly, energy efficiency is big. We have really started to ramp up our efforts to focus on heat rate. If you can get the same amount of megawatts for less fuel and less emissions, it’s a big deal and a big winner. Of course, that includes a subset of reducing own-generated facility house loads. It is an opportunity for the company as well because it has a positive impact on rates if it is done correctly.

One of the challenges is the notion of New Source Review and there is some ambiguity about that. In some cases, there is some fear that even if you are doing the right thing by virtue of heat rate or turbine uprates, they can be challenged during the New Source Review process. So it is not a clear path that everything will get the green light, although it is the right thing to do for both business and the environment.

Curran: The biggest “bang for the buck,” let’s say, is in the steam path in the turbine side. We also have products for improving efficiency on the boiler side, but they are not quite as significant as what we are able to do on the steam path side.

Broeils: Obviously, heat rate is the real focus here and some of the things I will mention really play into that. If there are opportunities to optimize or upgrade the cycle efficiency at an existing facility, that’s a good one. Sometimes the use of variable frequency drives on large rotating loads: It’s a capital investment, but in terms of driving down the in-house loads that can help.

One that we have come across on some of our environmental retrofit work is sometimes on older units there is some tightening, if you will, of the boiler gas path to limit the air inflow, which increases gas volume. These kinds of things can help. Then on the new plant side, there are the obvious things like supercritical and ultra-supercritical technologies that provide higher efficiency.

Reymond: The efficiency improvements that everyone has discussed are clearly the right ones. However, I think you are still talking single-digit percentage point improvements, which are going to be offset by a shift in generation to the coal units that you improve and away from gas, so it isn’t like it’s a complete savings. You’re not running gas as much, which has half as much greenhouse gas emissions per megawatt hour. I don’t see that just improving existing power plant efficiencies is going to make an enormous effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

Curran: Efficiency improvements help and some make economic sense. But on the existing fleet, what we are talking about would fall short of a goal of 80 percent reductions by 2030. So we believe to do that you need to look at the entire mix of renewables, coal with CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), gas with CCS and nuclear in order to achieve the desired reductions.

EPA has set out timelines for coal-fired generators to comply with a variety of environmental regulations. Why the hesitancy on the part of power generators to move forward with emissions control projects?

Reymond: Not everyone is hesitating as there are projects that are starting. In fact, we are already working on several that are trying to get out ahead of the curve. So I think the wave has begun and is here. But bottom line is that while UMACT is out as a proposed rule, and there are several more rules that are not out, I don’t think anybody exactly knows where those limits are going to end up. And depending on where they end up, that is going to drive different decisions that people make with respect to whether they do wet FGD, dry FGD, trona injection and baghouse versus scrubbers. So there is a lot of uncertainty still in the regulations that, until there is some clarity provided, which will happen I think over the next year or two, there is going to be some hesitancy that people might do the wrong project.

Fisher: We have about 14,000 MW of coal in our reasonably diversified overall fleet of nuclear, coal, gas and hydro. Over the last 15 years we have controlled all of our big units, about 7,000 MW. So there is no hesitancy there. And we got over 90 percent reduction from our peak units back in the ‘80s. So I don’t think there is much hesitancy there.

But what’s left is the smaller units. So now it is a matter of which ones do you control based on economics of each size and placing each of these plants balanced against the uncertainty and timing of these regulations, because they are kind of close calls. It is a matter of not being hesitant about the regulations, but there is uncertainty about those dates. And as technology is improved, the cost can go down. You don’t want to be leaping in on a close-call decision if there is potential for a further timeframe and/or some new alternative solutions which may be more efficient and less costly.

Curran: I would like to mirror some of the things that both Bobs said. We are seeing some customers move forward. We did have a very slow year in 2010 in the order intake on the environmental side and we have already more than doubled that year-to-date. But we are also seeing some customers coming to us to renew some old plans but keeping it “on the burner” until the UMACT becomes law, which we expect in November. The draft regulations are out for comments now and we know a number of our customers are asking for more time. Three years is not going to be a long enough period to get this done. So we are seeing that type of hesitancy on Robert’s point of uncertainty and especially in regards to smaller units; the 300 to 400 MW-class units. Retrofitting those completely against the current cost of gas and combined cycle is making it a tough decision for our customers.

Burns & McDonnell provided professional services including permitting, detailed design, procurement, construction management and startup management for Kansas City Power & Light’s 850 MW Unit 2 at the Iatan coal-fired power plant in Missouri. Photo courtesy of Burns & McDonnell.

Broeils: The key word I am hearing here is “uncertainty” and that’s with regard to where we are with current regulations. The first step is that we have to get those regulations in place with compliance dates and requirements firmed up. But I would also agree that I do not necessarily see a lot of hesitancy.

We are seeing a number of clients now coming forward, making early plans and doing some studies to gear up and get ready. Not to mention the huge wave of environmental retrofits that came through in the last several years. But uncertainty is a key factor here and beyond the current regulations there is this specter of greenhouse gas regulation that is kind of looming out there. It puts into plant owners’ minds questions about where they should spend money on environmental retrofits. If they spend a significant capital amount on an older plant now and then maybe five, six or seven years from now there are new greenhouse gas regulations that require them to spend even more, then they begin to wonder, “Am I making the right decision today?” So there is uncertainty over the regulations. A lot of that has to get cleared up to really move things forward.

Reymond: It’s going to have to be moved to legislation and away from the current wind of the EPA administration and what they are doing. I don’t think executives at utilities can make major investments based on what will happen at EPA if the administration changes every four years.

How economically feasible are these new EPA regulations? Will coal-fired plants shut down rather than retrofit to meet regulations?

Curran: We believe that there will be a certain amount of retirements in the smaller plant sizes. To Robert’s point, the bigger units should continue to get money and have an investment payback. The technology to meet the regulations does exist. And if you look at the long-term view of gas and how it has been, when we talk about the major pollutants, coal should still be more economical than gas. Once new regulations exist, we are able to provide the technology to meet them and believe there will be a good amount of business on the larger units.

Fisher: That is a valid point. In fact, our medium- to large-size units that are fully controlled are dispatching ahead of those gas plants even with the very low gas prices. That is instructive as far as the future of coal goes.

Reymond: We have compared on a medium- or a large-size unit these environmental retrofits against a retirement and building a new combined-cycle. Generally speaking, it is more cost effective to retrofit that existing unit and continue to operate it than even to build a new combined-cycle, even with the cheap gas out there right now. So I don’t think that coal is going anywhere anytime soon.

Fisher: You could envision getting to early 2020 or 2025 where you really have the bulk of these rules behind you so you understand the entirety of them. And then integrate a design that you can perhaps put on new coal construction that starts to make it viable and starts to eliminate the future uncertainty. So I think in that early-2020 period you might see some real considerations about the next coal generation because you can put a plant together that dispatches even ahead of gas at the lowest prices.

Fluor completed construction at Oak Grove in 35 months. Photo courtesy of Fluor.

Broeils: The technology is available today to meet the regulations with possibly one area of exception and that would be on new plants. The regulations that we are seeing drafted for UMACT are very stringent and in some cases it will be difficult to secure equipment on a guaranteed-performance basis to meet some of those requirements. But, in general, for retrofit situations the technology is available today.

The cost of compliance is substantial and it does give plant owners very difficult decisions to make as we have been discussing. We have seen from several industry groups and some of the financial institutions’ projections that there will be a certain amount of coal plant retirements. But I think that has yet to be seen.

What supply chain issues will come to life to retrofit coal-fired units if EPA regulations are to do so?

Broeils: I think this really depends on the compliance dates that come out. If it is a three-year program, we believe we are going to see an extreme peak in activity and that’s going to be the complete supply chain. That will be tightening the supply for environmental technologies such as SO2 scrubbers, selective catalytic reduction, baghouses, chimneys and then some of the typical bulk materials like steel and components such as pumps, motors, transformers and so forth. There will be a tightening even with contractors to perform the work. If we get a little more breathing room given by the regulators in terms of the timing then we will have a more levelized approach to this and it will be a better program overall.

Curran: One of the things that makes our jobs challenging are the cycles of the business. And so a tight timeframe will impact the supply chain. I don’t think it will be as severe as the 2006 to 2008 timeframe when we had the wave of some new coal plants being built in the U.S. China was also in a huge boom during that time and China has now come down to about half of that growth in the power area. We did find significant labor challenges back in the last wave and certainly it would be great to have a longer period of time for both our customers and for us as suppliers. It will be painful if it stays on these really tight timeframes, but I believe we will find a way to get it done.

Let’s talk a little bit about the future of carbon capture and storage. How is that coming along in North America? Are there projects taking place in other places in the world that the U.S. can learn from?

Curran: From Alstom’s perspective we are moving ahead with several pilots ongoing in the U.S. with our big focus being on post-combustion. But we also see that the one exception is FutureGen going with an oxy (combustion) solution.

Particularly in North America there is a lot of activity. We have the 200 MW demonstration project with American Electric Power where the momentum has slowed a little bit due to financing issues because the Department of Energy is only supplying 50 percent of the funding. We notice that DOE provided 80 percent funding on the FutureGen project, which will likely help that project get over the hump to get it going. But more help is needed to overcome the funding challenges associated with further demonstrations.

In Europe, we are seeing some of the same things. Alstom is running 10 demonstration projects around the world, principally in Europe and in North America. Our biggest project in Europe is a 250 MW project with advanced amine carbon capture technology. We believe the technical issues are important and continue working hard.

Broeils: We have some activity in North America both on the post-combustion side and then we also have interest in integrated gasification combined-cycle work. We probably see more activity in Europe right now. I think that is just the nature of some of the government funding that is being made available. Similar to Alstom, the largest one we are involved in is a 250 MW opportunity. We do see technological strides being made with the capture technologies.

Elevation view of Alstom’s Mountaineer chilled ammonia capture unit. Photo courtesy of Alstom.

But storage remains a significant issue to be resolved. From our viewpoint, it’s not so much the storage technology. Various gases have been stored underground for many years. It really comes down to public acceptance and who carries the long-term liability, demonstration of technology to improve public acceptance and so on. And finally, there is an insufficient value for CO2. We don’t really have a value established to create a business case for it and I think until we have values established and in place, it is going to be very difficult to carry forward in a meaningful way.

Curran: I would add to Don’s point that, yes, without the certainty of the regulation, the momentum has probably slowed. And the financing is becoming more difficult for these demonstration projects.

Reymond: Without a regulatory or legislative driver here in the U.S., I don’t see it really going any further that it is right now.

As part of its Integrated Resource Plant, TVA announced the closure of 18 coal-fired units. Of those 18, six units are at the Widow Creek Fossil Plant in Alabama. Photo courtesy of TVA.

Some may say that new nuclear suffered a setback with Japan’s crisis, but the prospect of low-cost natural gas with its less carbon-heavy footprint versus coal is winning converts. With the nuclear renaissance fizzling in North America, does coal have an opportunity for new development? Or does the combination of low natural gas price and environmental restrictions keep the door shut?

Fisher: New nuclear is a key part of our Vision 2020 that our CEO has laid out. Our vision for the future is for more nuclear generation both from large and potentially small reactors. The large reactors will fill the gap in current supply and demand whereas in the future if the load demand growth is small we can use small modular reactors to supply the load.

Our ambitions include finishing our Watts Bar unit, which will come online next year. We also have the Bellefonte plant. Estimates are that Unit 1 is currently 55 percent complete and Unit 2 is 35 percent complete with a targeted completion date at the end of this decade.

And we also are starting in the assessment of the small modular reactor as kind of a long-term solution. We are not big on the whole notion of brand new large nuclear for a variety of reasons, most of which are economic and a lot of the dynamics around building large nuclear. We do have an aggressive nuclear agenda. We have not lost our appetite based on the Japan crisis. We are actively engaged in the process of paying attention to the Japan crisis. We are asking questions of our own plants and our own emergency postures to see where we potentially have vulnerabilities. We are doing things to sure those up where there may or may not be gaps.

Actually, we have a lot of things that we have already done. Our Bellefonte plant appears to be very robust compared to some of the vulnerabilities exposed in the Japan crisis. Clearly, we believe that the Japanese crisis will come to a graceful close and we must understand the full learnings of that before we are to accelerate or make any other additional key decisions.

That and the combination of low gas prices does put pressure on the coal fleet. That is why we are in the process of throttling back our coal fleet, growing our gas business and growing our nuclear side with the objective of a nice balanced portfolio. We have not articulated what those numbers look like, but it will be a nice even generation of the three primary fuel sources for generation.

Curran: We saw the nuclear renaissance stall before the Japan crisis, economically. And with gas being where it is today, it seems like the momentum has shifted to this long-term low-cost gas, which was another blow to the nuclear renaissance.

We are focused on retrofits. We see that upgrading the capacity of existing plants is a good business. But in relationship to coal, the challenges still remain and it’s great to hear that the coal units are dispatching in TVA ahead of gas even with the low price of gas. We are currently working heavily on reducing the overall capital cost of coal based on our global supply chain and things that we are doing in China. So we are working on bringing that cost equation down against the lower cost of combined-cycle, but we still see a challenge permitting coal going forward. That all has little to do with the Japan crisis.

We think that the market will respond ultimately, as Robert said, to what happened there and what has been done in the future to ensure safety of nuclear generation.

Reymond: Fukushima may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back on some of these projects that were delayed or canceled after the Fukushima event occurred. But I think the hay bales that were already breaking the camel’s back were low gas prices, some cost overruns and pretty large schedule delays on some other projects in the world.

But really, gas is the main issue and, frankly, coal and nuclear have the same problem with low gas. You are probably not going to build a lot of either one of them with the current outlook on abundant gas that we have. Added to that, specifically with respect to coal, the new unit UMACT standards are in certain cases outrageously low even to the point of being two orders of magnitude more restrictive than the existing unit MACT standards. There is no way Alstom or the other suppliers are going to be able to guarantee emissions under the current standard. So those have to be changed or it will be de facto outlawing new coal.

Curran: The UMACT mercury regulation proposed is pretty much un-measureable. I heard from our people who work in Washington that they believe the EPA made a mistake and they are going to revise that draft regulation. But you are right, we couldn’t measure the limit that was proposed.

Reymond: I’m hoping that it will be.

Broeils: I’m hoping that it will be, too.

From our perspective on the nuclear side, I would tend to agree that we have seen some economic pressure and licensing pressure on projects coming forward. We don’t really view Fukushima as being a real game changer. Certainly there are lessons to be learned and the industry will learn and apply those lessons to existing nuclear facilities and to the licenses of new proposed nuclear facilities. We see some impact from that, but we don’t see a major slowdown in the business as a result strictly of Fukushima.

It is noteworthy to recognize that even though Fukushima had some fairly old technology in place, the safety systems, even though they were designed for a much lesser event, in large part did their job. And with the new technologies that we see in today’s nuclear steam supply systems many of the situations that occurred at Fukushima would not have taken place.

We think coal has a place in the energy mix and needs to be utilized. I understand what Robert Fisher said a moment ago about a good balance of generation and that is something that utility companies have strived to achieve for many, many years: to keep that balance. Gas is low in price right now and there is pressure on coal for that.

But we still feel that coal does have a place in the overall energy mix and that it will be difficult to permit new plants. There is still a place for existing plants to continue to generate a lot of electricity for many years to come.

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