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Guest View: Southwestern Virginia coal industry has key role in American’s energy future

Guest View: Southwestern Virginia coal industry has key role in American’s energy future

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Dan Brouillette | United States Secretary of Energy

For more than 100 years, the coal mined in Southwest Virginia has powered homes and business and provided jobs and economic benefits to communities from Lee and Wise County to Russel and Tazewell. In recent years, the industry associated with this abundant resource has been challenged as the demand for coal by the existing fleet of coal-fired power plants has declined. However, a strong future remains for Southwest Virginia coal.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) recent report, The Appalachian Energy and Petrochemical Renaissance, highlights these emerging market opportunities for coal and how DOE research and innovation, conducted in partnership with industry, will help create new economic opportunities for coal mining and utilization. That research is primarily driven by DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in nearby Morgantown, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There are three major areas where DOE is investing to help secure a place for Appalachian coal in America’s energy future.

The first is DOE’s Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, and Transformative) Initiative, which is aimed at advancing the next generation of coal-fueled power plants to provide secure, stable, and reliable electricity. DOE-led research and development will enable coal power plants of the future to produce zero, or even net-negative, carbon emissions, while operating more reliably and enabling quick and flexible delivery of electricity during extreme weather events when intermittent sources of electricity are not available.

In addition, Coal FIRST is developing technologies to convert coal to hydrogen, which also has zero, or even negative, carbon emissions, which can be used for electricity generation and transportation, or be stored for later use. The Department is investing heavily in these technologies, with nearly $200 million in funding opportunities made available over the past year.

The second is the development of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technology, which is proving we can produce reliable energy and maintain America’s dominant position as the world leader in the reduction of energy-related emissions. This technology is not only focused on coal and gas electricity production emissions; recently, DOE announced $131 million in funding for CCUS research and development with a specific focus on industrial-sourced emissions. Additionally, DOE’s “carbon utilization” investments are making significant advances in turning carbon dioxide, from coal and other sources, into high-value products such as plastic.

Finally, DOE is investing in the rapidly evolving “coal-to-products” industry, which will use the value of carbon to expand the coal value chain. The innovative technologies developed by entrepreneurs in industry, academia, and at NETL produce high-value products like building material, carbon fiber, and 3D printing materials from coal feedstocks. Also underway are efforts to extract the critical minerals, including rare-earth elements, needed to make high-tech products, batteries, and critical defense infrastructure from coal and its byproducts. Over the last year, DOE announced more than $150 million in funding for research to advance coal-to-products projects.

In addition to domestic benefits, each of these technologies offers the chance for the United States to export our energy expertise around the world. This energy trade will help our friends and partners reduce their reliance on our adversaries, while simultaneously providing energy diversity and fostering prosperity for their citizens.

Residents of Southwestern Virginia know better than most that fossil energy sources have experienced their share of booms and busts. But innovations, like those in development at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, can reinvigorate the coal industry and advance new, creative uses for coal that will bring jobs and economic growth to the Appalachian region.

Dan Brouillette is the United States Secretary of Energy.

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