U.S. EPA boss Scott Pruitt last weekend was slated to visit a Japanese plant that claims to be the world’s most efficient coal-fired power producer. It’s also known for its good looks.
"It could be a country club, and it’s a coal-fired power plant," said David Mohler, an Obama-era deputy assistant secretary for clean coal and carbon management at the Energy Department who says he shows pictures he took on a visit to the Isogo Thermal Power Station to people and challenges them to guess what it is.
"You can eat off the floor," he said. "There’s no coal dust that escapes into the environment, because it’s very self-contained. It’s designed in a way that’s meant to be aesthetically pleasing and clean from the get-go."
The plant, which is located on a peninsula in Yokohama harbor in Japan’s second-largest city, has low emissions of conventional pollutants — one of its two units features an air quality control system — and achieves a 45 percent efficiency rate it estimates puts it on par with a natural gas-fired combined-cycle plant.
That compares to 40 percent efficiency at American Electric Power’s John W. Turk Jr. coal plant in Arkansas, the only U.S. ultra-supercritical coal plant. The average steam-cycle efficiency of a Japanese coal plant is 40 percent compared with the U.S. fleet’s 33 percent average.
It’s unclear what Pruitt’s aim would have been in visiting Japan or Isogo or whether the trip, which was scrapped due to the federal government shutdown, will happen at a later date. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an email, "Due to security concerns we do not comment on Administrator Pruitt’s upcoming schedule."
But the fact that the plant visit had been on Pruitt’s itinerary is the latest example of President Trump’s environment chief stressing support for fossil fuels abroad. His trip to Morocco last month focused on U.S. natural gas export opportunities to that country. And the Trump administration more broadly has advanced the use of "clean" fossil fuels as a solution for dealing with climate change (Climatewire, Jan. 16).
Virtually no coal-fired generation is in the construction pipeline in the United States now, mainly because gas production is booming in places like Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, making it hard for coal to compete. But plants like Isogo’s Unit 2, which came online in 2009, could be a model for any new coal-fired generation that would come online in the United States in future years.
"It could just be an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this is where we could go,’" said Mohler.
"The overall view of the portfolio in Japan is a plant constructed there is probably going to be about as good as you are going to get in terms of emissions reductions and efficiency," echoed Jim Wood, former deputy assistant secretary for clean coal in the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration and current director of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center’s Advanced Coal Technology Consortium at West Virginia University. "I think [Pruitt] may have interest in that."
Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she suspects Pruitt would have made the trek to learn about Japan’s deployment of high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal-fired power plants and possibly pull lessons about successful deployment in the United States.
The trip, she added, could also have served the secondary purpose of identifying market opportunities for U.S. coal in Asia’s power sector, including Japan.
Nakano pointed to the recent October sit-down between Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, where they announced an intention to unveil "concrete achievements" on liquefied natural gas; highly efficient coal and carbon capture, utilization and storage; nuclear energy; and infrastructure.
The following month, during a bilateral summit in Japan, President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said they planned to work together to deploy "highly efficient, low-emissions (HELE) coal technologies, including [carbon capture, use and storage]," along with developing a global market for natural gas, according to a November press release from the Japanese government.
Japan’s post-Fukushima coal embrace
Japan is making a historic shift back to coal use after abandoning nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
"Pre-Fukushima, Japan was planning to scale up nuclear to the range of 60 percent of its total energy generation by the end of the century," said Jackson Ewing, director of Asian sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute. "With the disaster, they’ve not only had to scuttle the expansionary plans, but they’ve had to considerably dial back the existing nuclear power that they have on the grid."
Nuclear now supplies only about 2 percent of the country’s power needs, with coal making up a significant share of that delta not only in the short term, but in the country’s future plans. More than 40 new coal power plants are planned, and significant new gas development is expected, too.
Ewing, who is also a faculty fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, said Japanese energy policy’s preference for fossil fuel investment threatens to crowd out renewable energy and throws into doubt the country’s ability to meet its commitments to the Paris climate agreement. Plants like Isogo, he said, are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Han Chen, international climate advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said even highly efficient coal-fired units like the ones Japan is investing in contribute to climate change.
"What Japan has claimed is that their high-efficiency, low-emissions coal technology will help reduce the environmental impacts," she said. The real difference between a conventional and a so-called "HELE" plant is on the order of a 5 or 10 percent cut in emissions, she said.
While the United States isn’t building new coal plants now, fossil fuel advocates hope Trump administration policies can help stem the tide of coal plants facing closure. One solution for some existing coal units, said Douglas Hollett, a former head of DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, would be to upgrade and retrofit them to be more efficient. That would allow them to be dispatched to the grid ahead of other suppliers.
"That’s the prize," he said.
Asian power markets give coal-fired generation access to the grid ahead of renewables, a fact that ensures more coal-fired power is used than renewable energy, even in countries like China that are building substantial renewable power.
Apart from Isogo, Japan is home to an integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plant in Fukushima prefecture (Greenwire, Aug. 5, 2014).
Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.