If the Trump administration has a solution to the climate problem, it's that the world should use "clean" fossil fuels.
President Trump and his team spent last year celebrating U.S. leadership on cutting-edge coal and natural gas technologies. It sometimes drew scoffs, especially at international gatherings. Allies abroad felt a sense of whiplash, seeing the United States go from a leader on cutting greenhouse gases to a salesman for the fuels that release them.
The administration used a global climate conference, of all places, to market its ideas. In November, in Bonn, Germany, White House international energy adviser George David Banks drew protests when he touted U.S. exports of low-carbon fossil fuels as a kind of alternative to the Paris climate accord. He told reporters at a U.N. conference that a "technology and innovation agenda" is a better response to rising temperatures because it would "balance mitigation with economic development and energy security."
Banks is now working with global partners to further that goal in an effort known as the "Clean Coal Alliance." But questions remain: Is the United States a leader in high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fired power generation? And is it a credible part of the global response to climate change, or could it worsen the problem?
U.S. isn't building coal plants
Experts said the Trump administration is pitching technologies — efficient coal-fired units — that aren't being used in construction in the United States.
Market forces have spurred a swift transition to natural gas in recent years. That has decreased carbon emissions, and it's also allowed the U.S. coal fleet to get long in the tooth. The last coal-fired power plant to come online domestically was the Spiritwood Station in North Dakota in 2014, and there are virtually no additional plants in the construction pipeline. Nearly 90 percent of the existing fleet was built before 1990, and retirements are common.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies are building new coal-fired plants every year.
German environmental group urgewald estimates that China is planning 700 new coal plants at home and around the world, nearly half of the global total. And Chinese domestic builds are among the cleanest in the world.
Steam conditions linked to boiler pressure and temperature are often used to gauge how efficient a plant is — and how low its emissions are. Subcritical units have the lowest pressure and temperature and are the dirtiest, while supercritical units are more efficient. Surpassing them are the ultra-supercritical plants, deemed the gold standard in efficiency.
These higher-efficiency technologies are referred to collectively as "HELE," or high efficiency, low emissions.
A Center for American Progress analysis released in May showed that of China's 100 most efficient coal plants, 90 are ultra-supercritical and 10 are supercritical. The United States by contrast, is home to only one ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant — American Electric Power Co. Inc.'s Turk plant in Fulton, Ark.
America's list of top-efficiency coal plants also includes 69 supercritical coal plants and 30 subcritical ones.
China's coal fleet overall is 55 percent subcritical, 24 percent supercritical and 21 percent ultra-supercritical, according to the International Energy Agency. The U.S. fleet lags, with 69 percent being subcritical and almost 31 percent supercritical, with only Turk in the ultra-supercritical category.
For contrast, the European Union's coal mix is 80 percent subcritical, with supercritical and ultra-supercritical at 10 percent each.
China will also phase in a coal-plant efficiency standard by 2020 of 310 grams of coal equivalent per kilowatt-hour that should force its less-efficient units to retire. No U.S. plant currently meets that standard.
Those figures don't tell the whole story. China had more than four times as much coal-fired generation operating as the United States in 2017, according to the IEA. China's plants run the gamut from highly efficient to highly inefficient. And as the latter category retires in China, Chinese corporations and banks are still building dirty units abroad.
Also, steam conditions are not the only way to measure a plant's emissions, and Chinese plants often lag in quality of fuel, operating conditions and maintenance practices. Chinese plants often run far below capacity, which can significantly increase emissions. And utility regulation in China is also not what it is in the United States, throwing into question both compliance rates and data collection.
In other words, ultra-supercritical coal plants may not always run as ultra-supercritical coal plants.
But China isn't alone in hosting new coal-fired power plants, and other world leaders also appear to be on the U.S. invite list for promoting coal technology. Among them are Australia, Indonesia, India, Ukraine and Japan.
So where can the U.S. lead?
This raises the question: What does the United States hope to offer in this process?
Plenty, say some experts.
"If you say, 'The U.S. is falling behind,' you still have to say, 'Well, where is the technology coming from?'" said Mark Morey, a former Asia-Pacific marketing director for Alstom. "Even if a plant isn't being built in the U.S., a lot of them are using technology that is coming from the U.S."
China, Europe, Australia and others have innovation centers, but few rival the U.S. Energy Department's 17 national laboratories.
"I think the U.S. labs produce the best research in the world," said David Mohler, an Obama-era former deputy assistant secretary for clean coal and carbon management within the Office of Fossil Energy at DOE. He also served as chief technology officer at Duke Energy Corp.
The National Energy Technology Laboratory and other DOE labs are world leaders in materials science, developing components that can withstand greater heat and pressure to support boilers operating at higher temperatures for efficiency. The labs have also developed next-generation sensors to help both existing and new plants with improved operations and maintenance; enhanced capabilities to better integrate coal plants with the grid as they move away from their traditional role as just "baseload" power to become more demand-responsive assets; and advanced modeling that can shorten the time it takes technologies to move from laboratory to marketplace.
But federal research requires federal funding, and Trump's fiscal 2018 budget request was not entirely friendly to DOE's research and development centers. The Office of Science, which funds operations of 17 national laboratories and research at other institutions, was marked for a 17 percent reduction from fiscal 2016 levels. The fossil energy office would be slashed 70 percent compared to 2016.
While Congress is likely to restore some funding, especially for the labs, Mohler said he worries that a loss of federal commitment to the objective of lowering power-sector emissions could erode U.S. leadership.
"There are a number of areas where I'm afraid we're going to lose competitive advantage," he said. "And I think we're already in the process of losing it, in particular to China, because we've stepped away from the table.
"A lot of the issues related to tackling climate change, including making more efficient plants and developing new technologies, really have elements that we were working on very hard and investing in, especially in the Obama administration, and now that we've stepped away from the table, I kind of see the Chinese rubbing their hands and saying, 'Oh, boy!'" he said.
While details on the embryonic Clean Coal Alliance are few, Mohler said it could be beneficial for the United States to partner with countries that are building the next generation of coal plants while it is not.
"It keeps the U.S. at the table but lets us watch and learn as progress is being made in other countries," he said.
'Enemy of the good'
But many environmentalists reject the premise that "cleaner" coal has climate advantages.
They note that infrastructure, once built, tends to keep operating until age forces it to retire. So seeking to satisfy the developing world's growing thirst for energy with fossil fuels — even efficient fossil fuels — could grandfather in decades of additional carbon emissions the world can't afford. A growing segment of the green community argues that wealthy and poor countries alike should be moving to a 100 percent renewable energy portfolio.
But Mohler said countries like Ukraine, where he has worked, don't have the capacity to "leapfrog" to renewable energy. They have a desperate need of heat.
"You can't move from a 1960s-designed plant that's providing heat to the Ukrainian people in the winter and being held together with gray tape and baling wire and no money for investment — you can't just leap from that to an all-renewables future," he said.
The country needs an intermediate step of efficient coal-fired power, which the international community could provide on the condition that Ukraine work with the European Union or the United States to construct a long-term climate change plan, Mohler said.
"Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good," he said.
Climate experts who expressed interest in the idea of a Clean Coal Alliance said they hope the White House and DOE, which would administer it, would make deploying carbon capture and storage technology its top objective, rather than just finding new markets for coal. Indeed, few said they think HELE qualifies as "clean coal" at all.
"For anybody to use the phrase 'clean coal,' it has to include capture and sequestration," said Douglas Hollett, a former principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Fossil Energy. "Full stop."
"HELE alone is not enough, that's absolutely clear," said Juho Lipponen, who heads IEA's work on carbon capture. He said IEA's research suggests that the world faces a 2030s deadline to retrofit all coal plants. Otherwise, it risks overshooting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius, he said. Canada and the United Kingdom in November led 25 countries and regions in pledging to end unabated coal use for power generation by 2030, at the latest.
DOE has an existing partnership with China on carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), but developing the technology is only half the battle. It's expensive, and even building a plant that can be easily retrofitted with CCUS in the future might cost a premium. Efficient plants are the best candidates for the technology, which diminishes a plant's efficiency. A government-led coalition or consortium could play a role in ensuring that any new coal-fired power plant built in developing countries would be CCUS-ready, Lipponen said.
Hollett said that while U.S. coal-fired power has shrunk in the face of cheap gas, the same trend is not occurring in the rest of the world.
"I think it's important to look not just at the U.S. but at that global market. And the world's going to be continuing to burn a lot of coal for a long time," he said. "That's what makes CCUS even more vital on a worldwide scale — and not just capturing, but also using and storing or sequestering that CO2."
The Office of Fossil Energy oversees most of that work for DOE.
Meanwhile, some developing and energy-starved countries may have the ability to rely on non-fossil fuels as they develop, he said. Many African countries, for example, might have the ability, based on the scale of their economies, to move directly to renewable energy use. But for larger economies and populations, like India, coal may still be essential. "It's important that the plants that burn that fuel in those countries be clean," he said, adding that that means low carbon, too.
Twenty-four countries responsible collectively for more than half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions have written continued coal use into their voluntary commitments to the Paris Agreement, known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. Some, like Nigeria and Ghana, have asked the developed world for assistance in gaining access to high-efficiency technologies.
"The NDCS tell the story," said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive of the World Coal Association, in an interview during the Bonn summit last year. "Countries are looking for support with clean coal technologies."
He argued that new coal is easier to retrofit for carbon capture and storage, and would help create an impetus for the technology to develop and to eventually cover emissions from gas and biofuels. "If you eliminate the technology option of CCS, the cost of climate action just goes up dramatically," he said.
Mark Brownstein, vice president in the Climate and Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the Trump administration's focus on "clean" coal is baffling, given that the president doesn't acknowledge man-made climate change.
"It's unusual that an administration that for all intents and purposes is refusing to acknowledge that climate change is a problem and that coal emissions are a large source of that problem at the same time is trying to take a leadership position in addressing the very problem that they don't want to name or discuss," he said.
But David Victor, a professor and director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, said the proposed alliance could be consequential if it means the Trump administration is working with other countries to fund joint CCUS projects. It's at least an olive branch offered to international partners that have heard Trump dismiss and minimize an issue that is a major priority for many countries.
"It may amount to nothing," Victor said. "But I think it's part of an effort for folks inside the administration who want to engage in some kind of constructive way on the climate issue to find a way of doing that that is not completely toxic here at home.
"And that's hard," he added.