Energy Department Backs Coal-Based Products

Jul 3, 2020

Nanocomposite plastics used in flexible displays, specialty plastics and 3D printing polymers
Credit National Energy Technology Laboratory

The Department of Energy has announced it plans to provide $122 million in funding for the manufacturing of coal-based products. The announcement called for the establishment of "coal products innovation centers" in major basins across the country, including Appalachia and the Powder River Basin.

Coal-based products, like carbon fiber and graphene, would ideally be used in high-tech industries, from 3-D printing to aerospace engineering. The announcement is the latest and largest step the federal government has taken toward funding the emerging industry.

Angelos Kokkinos, Assistant Secretary for the DOE's Office of Clean Coal, said the coal-to-products industry could prove a large economic opportunity for mining communities. These technologies, Kokkinos said, "can provide a substitute to the high revenue that communities were getting when they were mining coal for power production."

Randy Atkins has advocated for the coal-based products industry for the last decade. Atkins serves as Vice Chair of the National Coal Council, and his company Ramaco was the recipient of $5 million in DOE grants last year. Ramaco currently has plans to open a mine and a coal-to-products manufacturing center near Sheridan, despite facing permitting issues and local pushback.

Atkins said he believes that the DOE's announcement is confirmation that his work is garnering mainstream support. "There are an explosion of things that you can use coal for," he said, "And it's really just now becoming recognized."

It's unclear how large the industry could grow, though. In a recent report , the Department of Energy cited an analysis from the National Coal Council that claimed, "coal-to-product manufacturing could potentially grow to the same order of magnitude as coal usage for power generation."

Not everyone feels that the DOE's claims reflect the reality of the coal industry. Although the Trump administration has made continuous promises to revitalize coal, the industry hit a 42-year low in 2019 and has continued to decline sharply during the coronavirus pandemic. As coal-reliant towns begin to diversify their economies, some believe that promoting coal-based products as a savior of the industry will only pull communities backward.

James Van Nostrand, the Director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the University of West Virginia, said he was skeptical when his state's governor announced a partnership with Ramaco earlier this year.

"We try to have a talk about the energy transition and a Just Transition ," Nostrand said, "And then we have political leaders who suggest, 'Well, we don't really need to talk about a transition because the coal jobs aren't going away.'" Nostrand said he believes that coal-based products would be less of a substitute for power generation and more of a "boutique industry."

While he acknowledged that these products were more environmentally-friendly than coal usage for power generation, Nostrand said that mining itself can cause dangerous environmental impacts. Perhaps no one understands that better than Atkins - the permit for Ramaco's Wyoming mine was originally denied due to concerns regarding subsidence, blasting, and groundwater pollution.

The DOE is expected to release information on applying for funds later this summer.