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New Initiatives Launched to Improve Coal-Fired Power

While much of the mainstream media has been distracted by renewable energy, the coal business has quietly continued to consistently provide low-cost power from a relatively small footprint. They do so more cleanly today than they ever have. Still, when a power provider opts for new coal technology, they are usually referred to as a group that is bucking the low-carbon trend. After being the target of environmental activism for more than 40 years now, the coal-fired power segment gets that, but they also deserve some respect.

Last year, a total of at least eight coal-fired plants were recognized as leaders in their respective fields. Sadly, the general public never received that news. Even longtime Coal Age readers might be surprised to learn about some of the recent activities taking place among coal-fired power providers. GE, for example, has launched a major campaign to reduce emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. Rather than closing them, they are suggesting that they be retooled with the latest upgrades.

What follows is a collection of some of the more positive stories from the coal-fired sector that have been announced in the last six months or so.

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IGCC Technology Coming of Age

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Too old to be babied, yet still too young to be blamed, integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology is slowly emerging from adolescence.

While there are hundreds of pulverized coal-fired power plants in the U.S., there are only three operational IGCC power plants stateside. The eldest IGCC facility celebrated its 20th anniversary of operations last year, and it no longer uses coal due to costs. Its youngest sibling is double its size, more complex, and consistently garnered maudlin headlines over the last half decade as it exploded budget constraints and repeatedly missed deadlines while ramping up. The middle child, also double the size of the eldest, during ramp-up was such a locus of scandal an executive told the local daily it would “need an exorcist.”1 Their parents were prototype facilities, conceived in the public sector and academia, birthed in the private sector, coddled by government, and now either closed or converted. One is currently being repurposed to make fertilizer. Abroad, IGCC has met perhaps more success and interest, specifically in countries with high coal and low natural gas reserves.

This snapshot perhaps lends to cynical conclusions unnecessarily. No doubt, cheap natural gas from north-central Appalachia is killing more than just the U.S. coal sector. Nuclear plants nationwide are getting the axe, and uranium miner Cameco recently vaporized jobs after shuttering a mine and attempting to placate stampeding investors. Indeed, IGCC is in good company as a viable technology that has been sidelined by the advent and deployment of innovative hydraulic fracturing drilling technology making Marcellus shale-bound gas accessible.

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Informational Preferences of Coal Miners

The What, When and Who

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Miners need to be aware of their surroundings in order to keep themselves safe and healthy and reduce their risk. To maintain situational awareness, they need to detect, understand and act on the events going on around them (Endsley et al., 2000). Miners can get some health and safety information from what they can see, smell, touch or feel. However, in today’s mines, they also get an increasing amount of information via technology.

In order to better define the situational awareness and informational preferences of miners underground, NIOSH researchers asked miners what information they think is critical to know, who knows it, how often it is updated, and who is responsible for monitoring it. Researchers also asked them, in an ideal setting, who should know it, how often should it be updated, and who should be responsible for monitoring it. The survey focused on miners’ perceptions of gas levels, airflow, dust levels, and the location of people and equipment (Figure 1). These items were selected because they are some of the most common measurements related to critical health and safety risks.

While the survey was designed to be independent of technology and information presentation methods (i.e., display, alert, etc.), gas, dust and location information offer an interesting comparison related to technology integration and are the focus here. First, these technologies are of varying maturity. The multigas meter is the oldest, with approved methane detectors dating back to the 1950s (MSHA, 2015c). Second, regulated dust monitoring technology dates back to the 1980s, but was significantly overhauled in 2014 with the introduction of the continuous personal dust monitor (CPDM) (MSHA, 2014). Last, proximity detection is the newest of the three, with a new requirement for continuous mining machines and a proposed rule for mobile haulage over the last two years (MSHA, 2015a; 2015b).

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U.S. Longwall Operations: How Slow Can We Go?

Anticipating a recovery in 2017, longwall mines sit in a holding pattern

As was noted in the 2017 Forecast Survey, the U.S. coal business posted its worst year in 40 years from a production perspective, declining 17% in 2016. Similarly, total longwall production experienced a double-digit decrease. Collectively, U.S. longwall installations produced nearly 153 million tons in 2016, a 17.5% decrease over 2015. The four top-producing longwall complexes operate two faces each, and three of them produced more than 10 million tons. Last year, 11 longwall installations produced at a capacity of 5 million tons per year (tpy) or more, compared to 17 in 2015.

This year, two longwall faces were removed. Bowie Resource Partners closed and sealed the Bowie No. 2 mine in Colorado, and American Coal’s New Era mine is no longer operating a longwall face in Illinois. Yearon- year, the total number of longwall mines dropped to 38 from 40. Similarly, the number of longwall faces dropped to 43 from 45. Five mines operate two longwall faces.

The new names that appear on the 2017 U.S. Longwall Census include Contura Energy, CNX Coal Resources, Coronado Coal and Panther Creek Mining. Contura Energy, the company that emerged from the Alpha Natural Resources bankruptcy, operates the Cumberland mine in Pennsylvania. CNX Resources operates CONSOL Energy’s longwall mines. Coronado purchased the Buchanan longwall mine from CONSOL Energy last year. Panther Creek purchased the American Eagle mine from Patriot Coal during its bankruptcy sale.

Robert E. Murray and the companies he controls (American Energy, American Coal, Foresight Energy and Murray American Energy) operate 14 longwall faces spread across Illinois (5), Ohio (2), Utah (1) and West Virginia (6). Two of Murray’s mines, Deer Run in Illinois and the Powhatan No. 6 in Ohio, are listed as idle. CNX Coal Resources is the No. 2 longwall producer with three mines and five faces in Pennsylvania. Alliance Resource Partners, Arch Coal, ERP Compliant Fuels and Warrior Met Coal operate three longwall faces.

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The Outlook for Coal Improves

Optimism returns to an industry ravaged by hostile regulatory overreach

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What a difference a year makes. A year ago, the outlook was incredibly bleak. Most of the news reverberating through the coal business were bankruptcies and notices of
layoffs as U.S. coal production took a nose dive. The question was not whether 2016 would be a bad year for coal operators, but how bad? 

Utility coal consumption declined again in 2016 as coal continued to face stiff competition from natural gas.

As the year wore on, the tide started to turn for the coal business. Even though the courts ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory approach and the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Obama administration, an administration that was hostile toward the coal business for eight years, placed a full-court press on the industry in its final months. A collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout the coalfields with the outcome of the election. The thought of four more years of regulatory overreach under a Democratic-led administration was simply too much to bear. The Obama administration continued to lash out at the coal business until the 11th hour, pushing through a stream protection rule even though it knew it would be reversed.

Every January, Coal Age publishes its Annual Forecast based on a survey of its readership. The informal study gives an assessment of the current market situation, as well as the state of mind of coal operators. Based on that information and anecdotal information from the leading coal companies and the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Coal Age attempts to identify trends.

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Central Asian Miners Adjust Production Based on Markets, Russia

Continuing price declines for energy coal throughout the region during the third quarter forced former Soviet governments and miners to revise production and export goals. This trend asymmetrically impacted eastern coal miners. Kazak miners faced an unprecedented price collapse, and despite previous projections of rising production, will struggle to mitigate cascading indicators. Meanwhile, some neighboring countries attempted to take advantage of low prices. Authorities there encouraged domestic coal production to grow the industry to shed dependence on fossil fuel imports.

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