National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL)

Opportunities to improve the efficiency of existing coal-fired power plants

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Executive Summary

Reducing the carbon footprint of energy production activities has emerged as one of the defining environmental issues of the 21st century. The U.S. energy infrastructure encompasses an enormous investment in capital assets and systems to produce fuels and electric power for businesses, transportation, and homes. While the long‐term opportunity to reshape this infrastructure to have a low‐carbon profile is promising, near‐term opportunities to reduce carbon emissions are very limited. Because coal‐fired power plants account for over 80 percent of carbon emissions from the power sector, improving the efficiency of the existing coal‐fired power plant fleet presents one of the most promising, low‐cost options for reducing near‐term carbon emissions.

Increasing the thermal efficiency of the existing U.S. fleet of coal‐fired power plants by 10 percent within five years would save 150 million metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions per year and reduce the amount of coal required to produce the current level of electric power generation from these plants. A 10 percent increase in the thermal efficiency would raise the overall efficiency of the coal‐fired power plant fleet from 32.5% to 35.8% – about three percentage points of efficiency gain – and likely reduce other environmental emissions. Data analysis conducted by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and the consensus of selected industry experts indicate that this opportunity is technically and economically achievable but will require leadership from power plant owners and operators and commitments from regulators, vendors, federal agencies, and the public. Although some technical issues exist, most barriers to improving thermal efficiency are based on regulatory uncertainty, lack of economic incentives, business practices, plant operating practices, and inadequate training and knowledge.

Technical Workshop for Improving Power Plant Efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory hosted an industry workshop on July 15‐16, 2009 in Chicago, IL to explore opportunities to improve the thermal efficiency of existing and future coal‐fired power plants (CFPP). The workshop grew out of a study conducted by NETL that analyzed the efficiency of the CFPP fleet and suggested that improvements could be made, largely through better operating and maintenance practices. The workshop brought together 18 leading industry experts, representing utility owners and operators, equipment vendors, energy consultants, and power industry associations, to analyze technical and non‐technical issues affecting plant efficiency and determine how they can be addressed.

Through facilitated discussions, workshop participants

  • Recommended ways to enhance the NETL data analysis
  • Identified barriers to achieving efficiency higher efficiencies in coal‐fired power plants
  • Identified solutions to overcome these barriers
  • Outlined the respective roles of stakeholders in implementing the solutions
  • Identified the most important technical improvements that could be implemented
  • Framed an overall opportunity to improve the CFPP fleet

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